Category Archives: letting go

When things fall apart

hurricane“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
– W. B. Yeats, ‘Second Coming’

Even when our personal lives are satisfactory, many of us are deeply stressed by the current state of the world. If this is your experience, you may find it challenging to be tranquil in the midst of it all. And perhaps you don’t feel it’s right to cultivate tranquility when so much in the world is so wrong. You believe times like these call for action, not ‘navel gazing’.

But where does wise action come from? If things are falling apart and the center cannot hold, doesn’t it make sense to center ourselves?  Cultivating tranquility assures a better chance to be wiser and kinder in our choices, actions and words.

From that tranquil center arises gratitude for being alive to do even the hardest work. It provides clarity to see our purpose, where we can help and where we can remember that ‘it’s not all up to me.’ We can find true forgiveness for our own failings as well as for the misguided words and behaviors of others. We may discover a sense of deep connection to all beings of all species of all eras. That connection can provide additional support and meaning to our efforts. When tranquility is discovered and nourished through sitting in silence, then loving-kindness for ourselves and all beings blossoms forth into wise and skillful interaction.

And we are much less likely to succumb to despair.
My mother was a lifelong peace-worker, and on occasion she would fall into despair, especially in her later years when she could look back on all her efforts and judge them a failure, as it seemed the world was no closer to peace than it had ever been. It was hard to scrape herself off the floor and begin again. She had great strength but it was borne of pure will. She would give herself a good talking to and began again. She had the grit we Americans admire, but grit can only take us so far, and it rubs us raw in the process. Knowing how things ‘should’ be, and feeling we ‘should’ be able to solve every problem, entangles us in a deepening misery of fault-finding. This wasn’t commonly understood when she was alive. Meditation wasn’t a common practice and the phrase ‘emotional intelligence’ had not come into common parlance.

I believe if she had lived long enough to learn about and try the skillful techniques to cultivate an inner strength that doesn’t rely on teeth-clenching determination to sustain her noble commitment, she would have been less likely to fall into despair.

When she died on ‘March Forth’ 1989, I had a year of magical thinking, a gift of the unbearable grief I experienced. In my mind, my mother, once freed from the limits of embodiment – get this! – single-handedly tore down the Berlin Wall, ended apartheid in South Africa, inspired over a million Chinese to demonstrate for democracy in Tienanmen Square, ended heavy-handed communist rule in various eastern European countries, etc. etc.

But even with that great post-life work, she might have despaired. After all, if she was doing all that, couldn’t she have stopped the earthquake that devastated her beloved Bay Area? Couldn’t she, with her love of oceans and marine life, have taken a moment to prevent the Exxon Valdez oil spill? That sense of despair, familiar to us all at times, comes from the belief that perfection is possible, and that anything in life can be permanent. J. R. R. Tolkien is quoted as saying, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.

This is such an important thing to remember. We don’t know! Tranquility is possible if we can acknowledge that simple fact. Our inherent negativity bias makes us more inclined to think the worst is coming, and it’s enforced by the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ mentality of the news. But the news only shares the events that stand out because they are unusual. That means that most of everything that is going on in the daily life of most people is at least tolerable, and likely to contain moments of laughter and contentment.

Even when it seems that politicians are up to their gills in debt to interests not aligned with the public good and are only skilled at lying, we discover newer faces on the scene, with clearer kinder vision and a way of bridging the great divides between us.

There’s a Buddhist expression ‘No mud, no lotus.’ In the context of the current political shenanigans, we might open to the possibility that out of this period of mud-slinging, goodness is also arising. These newcomer candidates would likely not have been inspired to run if they thought everything was going along just fine without them. And if we were satisfied with the status quo, would we be so inspired to support them, to volunteer to get out the vote and spread the word? Probably not.

With so much we don’t know, one thing we can be sure of is that change is the only constant. Can we center ourselves and open our arms to embrace the ever-changing nature of life? It is possible to experience tranquility even in the midst of tumultuous events, seasons, power, politics, cultural favor, etc. The Eight Worldly Winds are always blowing: Gain and Loss, Pleasure and Pain, Praise and Blame, Fame and Censure. As long as we are alive, the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows are the gift and the challenge of earthly life. Why rail against it? Why make an enemy of it? Why add to the suffering? If we cultivate tranquility at the center of our being and operate from that place of calm inner strength, we can not only nourish ourselves but all life. We can be a light in the darkness, joining together with a whole world of others who are centered in tranquility and cultivating wisdom.


Tranquility is one of the Seven Factors of Awakening, and spending time with it has been a very rich experience for me. A few posts back we looked at ‘grudges, pet peeves and other mental knots’. Since then I have continued to notice my grudges when they come up, and I’m finding an unexpected increase in my capacity for compassion, forgiveness and letting go. It’s as if I’m a snake in molting season. Letting go, letting go, letting go. What a great unburdening!

Yesterday I was in the grocery store parking lot and saw the car of the tech who many many years ago ‘fixed’ my computer, and in the process made it unusable, leading to a whole slew of painfully expensive solutions. For the past twenty years whenever I saw that car, my mind would get caught up in that tangled knot of blame. Grrrr. This time I felt the rise of that knot again, so I paused and sat with the grudge for a moment. Just then the ‘fixer’ came out of the grocery store and got in the car. Oh my, how that person had aged. I felt compassion. And in that feeling compassion, the knot untangled more and dissolved. How could I hold a grudge against someone for so long? Someone who was, after all, just trying to help, even if it turned out not to be very helpful? Have I never made mistakes? Ha! Of course I have. Plenty of them! As have we all, even though we do our best not to. What a lovely release I experienced. And I expect there will be many more.

Who in your life entangles you in knots? Is there room for forgiveness? Not forcing anything, but just making room for the possibility? Are there some assumptions you’ve been clinging to that are in need of questioning – Is this true? How do I know this is true?

Tranquility arises from compassion, forgiveness and letting go. The tranquility, in turn, births skillful words and actions. Even, or perhaps especially, when it seems things are falling apart.

Rituals for the Winter Solstice

Yesterday was the solstice and because we have a western view, it is always the sunset that captures the sense of change, how the sun is as far south as it is ever going to set, and from here on until mid-June it will set further and further north.

Our next door neighbor has creatively captured these changes by drilling holes for small stakes to sit that mark the solstices and the equinoxes. For the past couple of years, we have come together to celebrate, but also to drill (which isn’t all that festive, but needed to be done.) But yesterday, no drill was needed. The holes were there, and there was something amazingly comforting in seeing that indeed, the shadow of the peg in the hole drilled last winter solstice still aligns perfectly with the anchor peg’s shadow.

winter-solstice-sunset500 winter-solstice-pegs-500

I brought various bells over, gifts of teachers and students over the years, and we each had a bell to ring out the sun as it set behind the mountain.

Then we toasted the solstice with wine homemade by my neighbor’s mother. And then, without the sun to warm us, we went back inside. A lovely joyous ritual.

This morning, I led my meditation class in a series of rituals to celebrate the solstice.

Beginning with our regular meditation, focused on the breath, I suggested noticing the empty breath, not to extend it or alter it, but to notice and honor it. We recognize it as part of a cycle — how there is: The inhale, the full breath, the exhale and the emptied breath. Noting each part of the cycle as it happens offers us a sense of awareness that we can apply to all that arises in our experience. We can notice details with more clarity when we give each our full attention as it comes into our field of experience. And like the breath, we can see how it is just as it is, unique unto this moment, but also how it is part of a cycle. Like all life!

Before class I had set up a center tray with:

  • A circle of unlit candles, one for each student, around a lit central candle.
  • A bowl
  • A bell
  • Natural things I found outside that are part of the season including a bare branch and some crumpled raggedy leaves (enough so each student can have one).

On hand I had some pens and bits of paper, and books for writing surfaces.

After our regular meditation session, I gave each student a crumpled leaf to contemplate and experience.

These leaves offer plenty of opportunity for the mind to state its preferences for a new supple green leaf, an autumnal festively colored leaf — almost anything but this sad looking specimen. But finding the subtle beauty in this too, as an artist would do, is part of our practice. And because we are a group of women ‘of a certain age’, finding beauty in what is faded, wrinkled and ‘past its prime’ is helpful. The Japanese term wabi sabi captures this ability to see beauty in such things.

Next, I pointed out the bare branch, and asked them to consider its ability to year after year release and renew. Then I passed out the papers, pens and books and asked the students to allow themselves to think of something within their own hearts and minds that is ready to be released, as easily as a leaf from a tree in late autumn. They wrote these down on their bits of paper and silently put them in the bowl. Then I set fire to the small pile of paper, and we watched the beauty of the flames, the paper darkening and curling, red glowing on the edges, and the curl of smoke arising, noting also its the sweet acrid odor suddenly there in the room. (If you had a large group this might be a bit of a bonfire, but our group was intimate enough that it was not a problem and didn’t set the smoke alarm off!)

Then I asked them each to take a moment to contemplate what quality they wanted to cultivate in themselves and in the world now. Then I lit a small candle from the larger one and said ‘I light this candle for….’ the quality that had come up for me. Then I rang a bell. When the bell went silent, each student, when moved to do so, lit her candle, stated her intention, and rang the bell.

Circled around our candles, we chanted to Om Mani Padme Hung chant. Although chanting is not central to the tradition I teach, this particular sangha has expressed the desire to incorporate some chanting into our sessions together, and I am happy to do so.

The Om Mani Padme Hung is said to express all the teachings of the Buddha in one expression.

Because we have just recently finished exploring the Paramitas, I found this teaching from Gen Rinpoche most interesting:

The six syllables perfect the Six Paramitas of the Bodhisattvas.

When you say the first syllable Om it is blessed to help you achieve perfection in the
practice of generosity.

Ma helps perfect the practice of pure ethics,
Ni helps achieve perfection in the practice of tolerance and patience.

Päd, the fourth syllable, helps to achieve perfection of perseverance,

Me helps achieve perfection in the practice of concentration,

and the final sixth syllable Hum helps achieve perfection in the practice of wisdom.

“So in this way recitation of the mantra helps achieve perfection in the six practices from generosity to wisdom.”

After we finished a lovely period of chanting we sat in silence for a few minutes, feeling the resonance of the chant, as if we were bells that had just been rung.

After that, I read my winter solstice poem in its original form (written in 1994, and this season adapted to Youtube video.)

And then, because this was a morning class on a bright sunny day, and it is the day after the actual solstice, I invited the students to go outside and stand facing the sun, closing their eyes and letting all the senses deepen in the experience of the warmth on the skin, the orange glow on the eyelids and any other sensations. After a couple of minutes we stepped into the shade, where we paid attention to the sudden coolness of the air, and then back into the room where the temperature felt warm by comparison.

Attuning ourselves to what is rather than wishing it away is central to Buddhist practice. What better opportunity than in the darkest time of the year when many of us struggle with our relationship to darkness, wishing for the light. But light is not absent. It is revealed. The stars shine brighter. We light a candle or a fire. And when we give ourselves the gift of really quieting down, our inner light shines.

We observe nature that greatest of all dharma teachers, and we see that letting go is a natural part of life. We too can release what is ready to be released.

We set our intention as to cultivate a beneficial quality, both in our own inner experience and in the way we relate to the world, making optimum use of whatever gifts we have to offer.

We give ourselves the gift of full attention as we circle deeper and deeper within through meditation and mindfulness practices. We chant in a way that deepens attention.

And we recognize that life is ever and always in flux. Can we dance in celebration of the ever-changing experience of being alive?

Wishing you every good blessing and joy in however you choose to celebrate the season.

Feeling overwhelmed? Something’s gotta give!

Continuing our look at the Paramita of Resolve, I notice my resolve gets undermined when I get overwhelmed by too many commitments. I get exhausted, upset with myself, upset with others, and irritated when things don’t go smoothly. In that state, it’s not easy to ask really useful questions. Instead, I’m more likely to ask ‘Who’s to blame here?’ Which of course only stirs up more trouble!

A much more skillful question is: ‘How am I in relationship to my current experience?’ That question is so helpful. It helps me become present and be compassionate with myself and others. Being present and compassionate are my two intentions in life, so I feel a deepening of my resolve.

In that moment, that’s enough. But later, when I have time to reflect on how I set myself up for a situation. I can ask:

  • Am I juggling too many things?
    • Sometimes I just take on too much and need to either pace myself, get help or let one or more of those things go, at least for awhile.
  • What could I let go of without the world ending?
  • Are some of those things not even my responsibility?
  • Am I being a perfectionist, not seeing the bigger picture or purpose?

So many students over the years have shared their exasperation with family members who don’t appreciate all the work they put into creating an event, like a holiday meal. They sit around watching football and say ‘Ma, relax, would you?’  Really? Do they think the gravy stirs itself?

We want some appreciation for all we do and some gratitude. But we also need to look at our own attitude. What is our goal here? To have a warm fun family (or friends) gathering? Or to prove we are great cooks, mothers, aunts, hostesses; as good as (or better than) our mother, mother-in-law, or some other woman who seems so exemplary and does everything faultlessly with apparent ease. Do we think our family and friends could only love and value us if we are superwomen? Au contraire! Think of the people you love and value. Is it for their superior talents? Probably not. In fact superwomen tend to be difficult, distracted and much less fun than someone who knows how to relax and enjoy her friends and family.

So a question that might expose some surprising truths is:

  • What am I trying to prove here?

We can ask these questions without judging ourselves harshly or feeling like failures. This is a compassionate exploration that helps us to bring some joy into our lives, not a witch trial!

One student experimented with letting go of some of the things on her annual holiday to do list, and discovered that if a tradition was valued there was always someone willing to step in and make it happen. I remember when I was a teenager and my mother decided not to bother getting a Christmas tree that year. My brothers were gone, Dad was bah humbug, and she was working full time. I was so involved with my friends, I hardly noticed. But then it was Christmas Eve day. And suddenly I did care, but I accepted that the little Mexican tin Christmas tree stand would be our only decoration that year. 74b945961621129527533854016eb072Then my brother surprised us by arriving home from New York. He was shocked, shocked, I tell you, that there was no tree. He put down his duffle bag and said, ‘Stephanie, get in the car.’ And off we went down to buy the last straggly fir at the Christmas tree lot at Tam Junction for one dollar. (I’m not so old that trees cost a dollar, but it was the last one and the man was ready to close and probably felt sorry for us.)

Why do I tell that story? To show that it wasn’t the end of the world that my mother chose not to go all out for Christmas as she had in all the previous years. She was tired! And my brother stepped in to fill the void about a tradition he felt important to uphold. It wasn’t a failure for my mother but an opportunity for my brother to shine in his little sister’s eyes!

If no one steps in to uphold a tradition, perhaps its time has passed. For now. And no doubt new fun traditions will be created, ones with more ease, collaboration and congenial celebration. Can we be open to the possibility that we are not the only weavers at the loom of this life?

Of course, this is not just a holiday challenge. We can easily get overwhelmed by our daily lives. The to do list may seem endless. Recently we looked at Letting Go, and focused mainly on possessions, with the aid of Marie Kondo and her best selling book. But we can look at our involvements in the same way we do our possessions. We can think about each activity and whether it nourishes us or is just something we do to fill time, or is an obligation we have taken on but the heart is not in it.

As women, especially wives and mothers, when we evaluate our activities, we are more likely to toss out the one that is ‘just for me’, seeing it as selfish. We tend to put our needs at the very bottom of every to do list, and then never get that far. This is convoluted thinking. The activity that is central and nourishing, like meditation or yoga or walks in nature or time alone with a journal or a bubble bath or time at the easel or dancing, makes all else possible. Giving up on that nourishment leaves us unable to handle the rest with any sense of joy and generosity.

This happened to me in my early forties when I was just ‘too busy’ with work and trying to be an ideal mom, wife and daughter to find time to meditate. But without it, I got very ill and things (my body, my career) fell apart. I have never gone without meditating since. And everyone around me, from my husband and children to the checker at the grocery store, is better off for my resolution to practice every morning, whether they know it or not.

This is a worthy exploration. We may need to relinquish the idea that we can do it all, and ask for help. We may need to relinquish the need to be seen in a certain way, and accept this human experience as it is. We may need to relinquish the whip we have been beating ourselves with. But we need to be sure we don’t relinquish the very thing that keeps us present and compassionate.

By relinquishing what keeps us from our resolve, we make it possible to sustain that deepest intention.

Are you juggling too much? Please share your thoughts here.

Living Lightly

166760main_s114e7138The other day when I picked up my granddaughter from kindergarten, she told me that her teacher had taught them about ‘a powerful force that holds us to the earth.’ Her eyes were wide with Newtonian excitement. ‘You mean gravity?’ I asked. ‘Yes!’ she answered, delighted to share this wondrous secret.

That night I had a dream of living without gravity, everyone floating around, dancing in space.  But then there was the ‘stuff’. In this dream world, to have stuff you had to wear a harness with strings attached so your stuff wouldn’t float away. The more stuff you had, the more strings were attached and the longer they had to be. So, although they didn’t weigh you down per se, they made it more difficult to get around because you’d get all tangled up in the string and spend your time struggling to untangle it. And if you were surrounded by all your stuff floating tethered to your harness, it was difficult if not impossible to get close to anyone else. All the joy of weightlessness was lost. Forget about doing fancy flips and loop de loops!

Back on Earth I deeply appreciate how our bodies adapt so well to the level of gravity our beloved planet offers in support. Yet when we are tethered to a lot of stuff, it can easily get in the way of authentic joy. And it’s not just physical posessions that entangle us and create baffles and buffers against connection and interaction. It is also our accumulated and often unexamined judgments, assumptions, beliefs, addictions, distractions, desires and fears. We each wear the harness of an identity. All the precious-seeming ideas we have about who we are as unique individuals keep us from being as free and authentic as we might otherwise be.

Our exploration of letting go and our dedicated practice of meditation show us how to cultivate spaciousness. We might think of this as a gravity-free zone where sensations, thoughts and emotions float through, each one arising and passing away of its own accord. In this spacious field of awareness we greet whatever arises with friendliness and compassion but without the need to succomb to whatever lure it might hold. (Remember the story of Buddha under the Bodhi tree greeting Mara, the temptor taking many forms to lure the Buddha away from his wise intention to awaken to the present moment. He would simply say, ‘Ah Mara, I know you.’ And Mara’s guise would evaporate.) Our greatest fear can be met in this way. Without pushing it away, hiding it or denying it, we can simply allow whatever arises to drift away of its own accord. If it is persistent, we can ask ‘What do you have to tell me?’ Our willingness to pay kind attention (without getting caught up in its story) will often be enough to gain a valuable insight. — Aha! and thank you. — Then what was hanging out is often able to soften, release, dissolve or just float away. But even if it doesn’t depart, our more open and skillful way of being in relationship with it means that we can live our lives more lightly.

Meditation is not a luxury item!

I just can’t seem to let go of Letting Go! This Paramita, the third on the list, seems so crucial and so central to everything. I think about moving on to the next Paramita, ‘Wisdom’, but see how Letting Go is a at the heart of wisdom.

After all, letting go is what we do as we meditate — We let go of tension, let go of thoughts as they arise, let go of grasping and clinging. We make a strong distinction between letting go and pushing away. Very clearly letting go is a friendly act — an opening, a gentle holding in a spacious way and even delighting in whatever arises in that spaciousness before it drifts away.

As women, we often let go of what is nourishing us. Why? Do we feel we don’t deserve it? Are we so used to putting the needs of others first that our needs fall through the cracks? Many of us see meditation as a self-indulgent treat that we will get to when everything we do for others is taken care of. A little reward for good behavior.

But meditation is not a reward. It’s more in line with necessary basic activities like brushing our teeth. Definitely not something we want to put off. But if you haven’t meditated before you haven’t experienced the benefits yet, so how can you know? Longtime meditators sometimes forget how much they depend on their practice to bring balance, compassion and joy into their lives. One time when I was on a two-month trip abroad, I struggled to find time to meditate, and eventually gave up. I thought that maybe while traveling I was living so much in the moment, with everything new and interesting, that I didn’t need my practice. It was a real opportunity for me to see exactly how much my daily practice supports me. The longer I didn’t meditate, the crankier I got, the less creative I got, and the more out of whack I felt. It was a good lesson. I haven’t missed a day since then. I may have occasionally done shorter meditations, but I’ve never gone without it entirely.

If we let go of meditation, thinking we are doing it for others, who will thank us for that sacrifice? No one! Because when we sacrifice our own well being — our balance, our resilience, our creativity, our sense of fun and perspective, our joy — it is not at all generous to anyone. Giving up something that feels selfish because it is personal ‘down’ time, may feel generous at the time, but in fact it is quite the opposite. Maybe we’re striving to prove how ‘good’ we are and how deserving of love. We may think we’re earning points that will ultimately ensure fidelity forever. But is that the kind of love we want? Tit for tat? ‘You owe me, bigtime. Look what I did for you.’ That’s bound to backfire. No one likes to be in debt.  

We may secretly want someone to know what we need and give it to us. I know years ago I kept working at a high stress job when I was very ill, hoping my husband would say ‘Honey, quit!’ But my husband saw me as a mature adult with the good sense to take care of myself. (How wrong can a man be!) Ultimately my doctor told me I had to stop working in order to heal. Only then was I able to do so. Looking back I wonder why I felt I had to wait for permission? (Looking back I also see that if I had carved time out in my day to meditate and time out in my week to meditate in a group, I probably would not have gotten ill in the first place as I could have better handled the stress of the work.)

We may not value what we simply claim for ourselves in the same way we value what a loved one or someone we respect gives us — whether it’s acknowledgement, permission or something else we yearn for. This may be a secret even from ourselves and takes some deep noticing to see how ingrained in our upbringing this kind of thinking can be. It’s why men are so often baffled by women.

— What do women want?

— If you have to ask, I can’t tell you!

Agh! The need to be known in such a deep way that one’s most hidden desires are anticipated is highly unreasonable, of course. And it causes misery all around.

As a teacher of a women’s meditation group, I have seen how difficult it can be for women to claim the time and space to meditate. Early on in my own practice, it took a lot of gumption to tell my husband to close the bedroom door behind him when he got up in the morning and don’t come back in until it was open. Early mornings are my time for meditation and writing. When I did make my request, he was happy to accommodate me. It was not a problem. It was not selfish. He loves me. He doesn’t need me to be at his beck and call every moment. That is not the foundation of our 47 year relationship! Mutual support, shared core values, physical attraction, respect, humor and wanting the best for each other — that’s what keeps us together.

Virginia Woolf’s famous encouragement for women to have a room of their own has resonated for many women. The current trend has taken it to another level: the She Shed! Beautiful outbuildings, garden dwellings, just the right size to hold one woman and an occasional invited guest. Whether it’s set up as a studio, a meditation spot or a nest to read and daydream, it is a claimed space, away from the ongoing uproar of family life and the questions of ‘What’s for dinner?’ or ‘Where’s my baseball bat?’ Even when the main living space no longer holds chaos and clamor, it still holds distracting technology, habituated patterns and a sense of demand to be maintained. Claiming some personal space within it is wise, but a she shed! Oh my! Now we’re talking.

Carving out a regular time in the day to meditate and in the week to attend a meditation group means claiming space on the calendar and making it a priority. If other things are being scheduled, a woman may have difficulty claiming that space. If the receptionist at the doctor’s office suggests an appointment time, unless it’s somehing urgent, we don’t have to take the first one offered if it conflicts with our commitment to practice! We can protect that precious dedicated time instead of making it a default thing we do when nothing else demands our attention. If a mate has scheduled something, expecting us to be available, it is surprisingly difficult for many women to say ‘that time doesn’t work for me.’ This can be true in any personal or professional relationship that takes priority over taking care of ourselves. Men generally assume that we, like they, will speak up for ourselves and claim what we need.

If we have the inner message that our time for meditation is a treat, and selfish at that, then we are ready to sacrifice it at the least provocation because we weren’t sure we ‘deserved it’ in the first place. It’s only when we begin to see that our regular practice of meditation benefits not just ourselves but all those around us that we gain the strength to claim the time we need to practice, to attend classes and be with our supportive sangha.

When we give ourselves what we need through the daily practice of meditation, especially with the addition of metta practice, accessing infinite loving kindness, we find a source of non-depletable energy that inspires us to collaboratively and lightly create joy in the giving.

So you can see that we want to be discerning and wise in what we choose to let go of. Let go of things that deplete you, drain you, or leave you feeling lost and befuddled. Hold in a loving embrace all that nourishes and inspires you. Do this and you’ll fall in love with life, as well as your family and friends, all over again.

Got too much stuff?

Kondo bookI just read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Instant inspiration! Suddenly a third of my wardrobe is bagged and ready to be donated. And it was so easy! Using her method, I didn’t have to get caught up in long inner deliberations. The piece either suited or it didn’t. If it didn’t, and it was in good shape, then ‘thank you for your service and off you go to someone who can really appreciate you.’

There is a very present meditative quality to this endeavor. It is a way of being in relationship with possessions that lets us practice the third Paramita of Renunciation or Letting Go. Tuning into how we feel about an object fosters a state of presence, clarity and compassion. The author asks us to notice which objects ‘spark joy in the heart’. This might come more easily to some than others. For me it was very subtle in most cases, with a few delightful and surprising exceptions. Sometimes the piece of clothing that sparked joy was buried at the bottom of a drawer, so there was less a sense of letting go than of discovery. This is true with all kinds of letting go: We clear the way for what really matters in our lives. Whether it’s objects or errands or emails, when we find a way to let go of the busy buzz, we suddenly see the world around us and the people in our lives in a more spacious and present way. We have made room for them and for our love to shine forth.

Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering touches on another important aspect of letting go — not making an enemy of anything. She thanks her things for the good job they have done, whether she is putting them away after using them or bagging them up to be donated. She treats her things with loving kindness and respect. This creates a pattern of how we want to be in relationship to others and to our own inner thoughts and emotions: Compassionate, respectful, kind, grateful. We fool ourselves if we think we can be mindful in one area of our lives while being thoughtless and disrespectful in another. So this is excellent training.

In class we all agreed we have too much stuff, and that we keep things around for a lot of unexamined reasons. Ms. Kondo’s method is liberating because it short circuits the need to go through all those reasons. It doesn’t matter how you rationalize it! It either sparks joy or it doesn’t. How does this extend into relationships? What explanation do you give yourself for spending time with someone who drains your energy or treats you badly?

But back to stuff: At a certain point in our lives, most of us accumulate not just our own stuff, but our parents’ as well. When my brother and I were going through the detritus of our parents’ lives, I kept muttering about how when Gandhi died he left behind five things: his robe, his sandals, his glasses, his bowl and his spinning wheel. And look at what a difference he made in the world! I made a vow to manage my own stuff in a way that my children would not be overburdened. Marie Kondo’s book might help me keep that vow yet. Meanwhile, I still have unsorted papers of my father’s in plastic boxes in the basement over twenty years later!

Given that, I was recently moved when I heard that my friend’s father in his last years made a concerted effort to go through and get rid of most of his own stuff, and then went the extra mile: He left behind notes of appreciation for each of his children and grandchildren. Such thoughtfulness was not what any of them expected from this sometimes gruff and cranky fellow. May he rest in peace.

Having brought up death, let’s look at that great letting go. Actively letting go of stuff that doesn’t spark joy creates a pattern of skillful ability to let go when our time comes to transition into whatever unknown state lies beyond this body. I’ll never forget the glee with which my father announced that his doctor gave him his ‘exit visa.’ He was so relieved not to have to go through any more medical procedures. He was ready for ‘that sweet by and by.’

Let me be clear that suicide, however, is not letting go but pushing away, running away, seeking escape. Maybe this moment doesn’t spark joy (to say the least!). Maybe life seems hopeless. But the answer is not to end all possibility of joy. Instead, get the help needed to gain some perspective and see more clearly what really needs to be let go. And whatever it is — anger, shame, or something else — see if you can hold it with kindness and respect and thank it for its service.

Whether we are letting go of possessions, relationships, activities or life itself, staying present with our senses and noticing the nature of our thoughts, we can come into a state of grace. We create spaciousness and ease in the way we attend whatever arises in our experience. We make room for the joy not by pushing other things away or ignoring the mounting pile of objects or obligations, but by thanking everything for the service or the lesson they have provided us. In this way, we find the spark of joy in each moment, even, or perhaps most especially, the moment of our ultimate letting go.

Can’t get no satisfaction?

chocolate cake thoughtSometimes right in the middle of a meal, I remember about dessert. Suddenly I can’t taste what I’m eating. My whole focus shifts to desire and the anticipation of something sweet. This may happen even though the meal is tasty and I had been looking forward to it! Sad, huh? But instead of judging it, let’s see what’s going on here, because this is an example of what we all experience to one degree or another in some area of our lives. Why can’t we enjoy what’s right in front of us? Why does the mind leap into the future or into the past?

Whether it’s a craving for sweets or some other sensory experience, desire for something else clouds our ability to be present. Sense desire is the first of the Five Hindrances, those obstacles to mindfulness. All of the Hindrances pull us away from present experience: We crave something or are annoyed by something; we are too restless, worried, spaced out or sluggish to notice what’s going on in this moment; or we are in a constant state of doubt. Whatever muddles the mind, clouding clarity and compassion, hinders us from feeling fully alive and well.

In our exploration of the Ten Paramitas, Perfections of the Heart, we now come to the third Paramita, Renunciation. What is that? All the synonyms for ‘renounce’ sound equally unpleasant: ‘abdicate, abstain, cancel, deny, disavow, eschew, forego, give up, let go, rebuff, refuse, relinquish, abandon, repeal, repudiate, sacrifice, spurn, surrender, veto, waiver, yield.’ Yuck! If you feel resistance to them, you are not alone. Even the Buddha said that at first his ‘heart did not leap up at renunciation, seeing it as peace.’ But later he did recognize the inner peace that renunciation creates within, once it is truly understood and acted upon.

In Buddhist practice, renunciation is not denial, nor is it punitive. Instead it is recognizing where our happiness is. If we believe that happiness comes from the objects of pleasure in our lives, then we are constantly seeking out these things and experiences, caught up in a state of longing. Then, once we attain the object of desire, after a brief jubilation, we find it difficult to fully enjoy because, like all things, it is fleeting. We want it to last forever, but that is not possible. So there is clinging that arises in our experience. We either plot how we can hold onto it, or we have discovered it isn’t all that great and plot how to get the next object of pleasure in our lives. Perhaps you can pause and think of some situation in your life that illustrates this.

Once we understand the nature of impermanence we see that it is not the objects of pleasure that provide happiness. It is, instead, our ability to be present. We can enjoy even ordinary moments, even challenging ones, if we are fully present in all our senses. Through our meditation practice, we create a spacious ease to hold all that arises in our experience, and we discover the joy available in every moment.

When we believe that happiness is attaining a particular sense object — I used chocolate as an example, but it could be anything that we long for and hate to see end — then we get caught up in the throes of misery of our own making. So I don’t have to renounce chocolate. (Yay!) I simply need to notice how the Hindrance of sense desire is activated within me, and how it causes me to suffer. That awareness, fully realized, disempowers the Hindrance. This is skillful renunciation — a kind of catch and release of the mind states. These Hindrances are universal in nature and we will come upon them again and again in our lives. Each time is an opportunity to notice, to celebrate and be grateful for the noticing, to observe and be curious about the way the Hindrance is impacting our experience, and to compassionately detangle and eventually release it, with a reminder to keep an eye out for it because it will appear again.

Renunciation is the third of ten Paramitas, right after Generosity and Ethics. All these Perfections of the Heart work together, but there is a traditional order and a reasoning for this order: As we develop a sense of generosity, deepening our connection to others, we naturally develop a sense of non-harming. So the Paramita of Generosity begets the Paramita of Ethics. Our exploration of Ethics took us to review the Five Precepts or vows of non-harming that are traditional in Buddhist practice. Each of the Precepts uses the word ‘refrain’, as in ‘I will refrain from taking what is not freely given.’ Notice how the word ‘refrain’ naturally leads us to Renunciation. We refrain from, we renounce, we let go of ways that we harm ourselves or others. And in all three of these Paramitas, the Hindrances have played a major role in our investigation.

A word came to me as I prepared to teach about Renunciation and I think it has a place in this discussion. I thought of ‘cleave’ as in cleave unto each other in our marriage vows. What if we ‘cleave unto this moment’, holding this moment above all others? In our mindfulness practice we are in effect vowing to ‘marry’ this moment, letting go of our longing for other moments, for the past or the future. There is a devotional quality to this wording that I think captures the sense of renunciation that we’re going for. It’s making an intentional choice to be here and now.

Buddha said, “I removed the fever of sense pleasures and dwell without thirst with a mind inwardly at peace.”

A few posts ago, I told the story of my nineteen-year-old self’s experience of being high and having a vision of a mountain with people earnestly climbing it. When I saw that although I was at the same level as the top of the mountain, I was in a hot air balloon and it was losing altitude. I recognized that I needed to ‘go to the mountain’ and climb one of those paths. Looking back, I can see that it was a moment of renunciation. It became clear that no drug could provide what I was seeking. So renunciation is not denial of the pleasures of life, but a way of recognizing what is truly beneficial and what is causing us harm.

A final quote from the Buddha: “When we understand the nature of desire, it falls away by itself.” A look at the Hindrances with a vow to release them with mindfulness and compassion allows true happiness to arise in our hearts.