"When understood, the Buddha’s universe..is anything but alien and inhibiting. It is a world full of hope, where everything we need to do can be done and everything that matters is within human reach. It is a world where kindness, unselfishness, non-violence, and compassion achieve what self-interest and arrogance cannot. It is a world where any human can be happy in goodness and the fullness of giving." ❦ Eknath Easwara

February 28, 2013

Clinging, Letting Go, and Mourning in Our Dharma Practice

Jack Engeler

As long as we cling, we don’t awaken. So how do we let go of clinging? How do we let go of anything that we cherish and believe is essential to our happiness? That’s the crucial issue in practice, as it is in therapy and as it is in life.

We call our practice "insight" meditation, because in it we see the truth of anicca, dukkha, and anattà [impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness]. But insight alone is not transformative. Not in therapy. Not in meditation. Not in any process of transformation. How many times have you understood quite clearly what you should do, see very clearly into some old pattern of behavior and why it doesn’t work, and yet find yourself still repeating it? Coming to see that someone or something needs to be surrendered and surrendering it are two different processes. It is the hard, working-through of insight that makes the difference.

At its core, this always involves coming to terms with some loss. Because genuine insight always challenges us to give up something we’re clinging to: a long-held belief, a mistaken image of self, a misplaced hope, a habit or familiar way of doing things, the assumption that someone we love will always be there. True insight means seeing things as they really are (yathà-bhåta), not as we want them to be. Coming to this acceptance is the work of mourning.

Mourning—letting go of the way we want things to be—is much harder than coming to understand that we must let go. We seldom, if ever, just accept anything, especially anything that threatens our safety and security, what we feel we need to survive. Most of the time, when reality doesn’t accord with our wish or the way we think things should be, we only come to accept it gradually, haltingly, sometimes with despair, always with resistance. Without grieving what we are being forced to give up, we don’t let go. Grief-work is precisely about coming-to-acceptance of a new state of affairs in which something we have cherished is absent. Through the work of mourning, insight becomes truth; maladaptive clinging and desperate holding on are surrendered and we start to live again.

This is never more true than in dharma practice, since what we confront and have to surrender is our clinging-to-self (attavàd-upàdàna)—a belief about who we are and how we are—that we have cherished for so long and believed essential to our happiness. Experiencing the reality of anicca, dukkha and anattà in each and every moment is the ultimate threat to our ego and security. Coming to an acceptance of these truths, which run counter to everything we want to believe and evoke the archaic fear of not existing, is the work that leads to awakening. Not samàdhi [concentration], not insight, but acceptance.

The two people I know who experienced awakening very shortly after beginning formal practice, one in six days and one in six weeks, were both women who had suffered great losses in their lives not long before, and who were themselves close to death. One had lost her husband and two of her three children and had been given only weeks to live by her doctors. The other had made three suicide attempts. It was not because their samàdhi was good (though it was). Both had already experienced profound anicca, dukkha and anattà. Both were already grieving deeply. Neither was holding on to much any more. Mourning had prepared them, much as the shock of his father’s death and subsequent poverty prepared the Sixth Zen Patriarch’s mind to awaken without formal practice on hearing the Diamond Sutra.

Awakening happens when self-grasping stops. Any experience of anicca, dukkha or anattà that is direct enough and deep enough will stop it. From one point of view, the higher "stages of insight" in vipassanà are just a way to introduce us to a direct and deep enough experience of anicca, dukkha or anattà that our mind will stop grasping. But Buddhist literature is full of stories—like that of the Sixth Zen Patriarch—that tell of awakening without formal meditation practice in someone whose mind has reached a point of readiness, someone who is no longer holding on to much.

Some of us have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, before we let go, and so there tends to be more struggle in the process. For others, it’s not a lot of struggle. Their conditioning and preparation is different. Mourning is a dramatic word, but the basic process is the same. There’s no way around that. Whatever the path and however the practitioner comes to it, the path turns on the working through of loss, acceptance and surrender—at every moment, but especially in the process of awakening.

So insight and mourning go hand in hand. We can’t give up what we don’t understand. We have to come to know something for what it is before we can let go of it. We try to short-circuit this process all the time: "All right, take me, I give up, I surrender." But premature surrender never works, because it isn’t based on fully facing whatever needs to be faced and working it through. Letting-go is not something we can just decide to do and do it, not when it comes to our most deeply held and our most cherished beliefs and attachments.

This is a somewhat different way of thinking about practice and what leads to awakening, but how could it be otherwise? If we’re going to let go of the ways of being and acting that constrict us, our ways of holding on to ourselves, then that’s going to confront us with loss. And the only way we can deal with loss and finally let go is through some process of mourning.

This excerpt comes from a day-long workshop given by Jack Engler at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on November l, l997. 


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