by Bob O’Hearn
“If you let go of everything,
everything, everything —
that’s the real point!”
A relatively descriptive phrase became popularized in the American vernacular in the last century: “getting hung up”. It signifies an uncomfortable condition of neurotic absorption in and obsession with an object of attention. A compulsive attachment, hard to break, it interferes with one’s ability to function normally and effectively in the objective world. If we investigate the situation in the most relevant context, we can recognize that, for most of us, the dominant object of attention which both fascinates and disturbs us, the prime addiction that hangs us up, is the one appearing right in our own mirror – the one we think of as “me”.
The irony of this predicament is that the “me story” is the one thing we cherish above all else, what we most seek to assert, nurture, and defend, and yet it is not even real. No image of ourselves — good, bad, beautiful, ugly, old, young, wise, foolish, loveable, hateful, ascending, descending, smart, stupid — is real. Rather, this sense of self with which we are so preoccupied night and day, year in and year out, is simply a procession of thoughts, dependently arising and dissolving based on various causes and conditions, with no inherent substance, and yet, amazingly, we assume that it all amounts to some concrete and enduring person.
Rather than recognizing the body-mind-complex as a temporary vehicle by which consciousness expresses itself in this three-dimensional realm, we identify with it to the extent that we are convinced it is who and what we are. Furthermore, because it changes, and because it suffers the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, and most of all, because it is bound to age and drop away, we live in a constant state of fear and worry.
Even our most exuberant joys and triumphs are tinged with the intimidating fragrance of impermanence, and the fretful challenges and struggles of just maintaining some sort of equilibrium in the threatening environment that passes for our living circumstances are such that we can never fully exhale, relax, and rest.
Even the intellectual acknowledgement that we are not the body-mind-complex will do little to assuage our anxiety, because such recognition is still at the level of conceptuality, and so is not really capable of bestowing any lasting peace at heart. Indeed, there is no strategy by which we can manipulate experience, no formula that we can employ to modify our mind, which will in any significant way alter the looming sense of dis-ease we feel, just by virtue of our taking a human birth.
Anything we add to consciousness merely compounds and complicates our presumed condition, until we finally wake up enough to see that it is all baggage. Even the most profound remedies suggested by the Great Ones to heal our sense of chronic unhappiness are ultimately nothing but added burdens, as long as we still cling to a sense of separate and independent existence.
Interestingly, it is that very sense of failure — the failure of all methods and schemes we have engaged to buttress our “me-story” and control life and relations – which creates an opening for us to finally let go of the struggle. Ego-mind is a clever critter. If we honestly inspect our motives, even our highest so-called “spiritual” ideals, we invariably will find self-interest at the root.
This is why we can’t “do it”, we can’t storm the gates of heaven. It is only in recognizing the failure of all our plans and schemes about liberation that an availability opens up for genuine recognition. With the end of that futile effort to project and protect our dreamy masks and self-images, there is the immediate possibility for us to awaken to that deeper, spacious peace which has been true of us all along.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is not a matter of trying to “be still”. That’s just another hopeful strategy – another doing — which only really serves to reinforce the self-sense. After all, who is trying to be still? Indeed, the one who would surrender is the very one keeping true surrender out of reach.
On the other hand, if we let go of the “me-project”, with all of its props and supports, imperatives and protocols, juggling acts and charades, we can discover something that we have been overlooking for a very long time. We can discover our own inherent peace and stillness, that which has only been obstructed, but never truly threatened by the impermanence and fragility of the body-mind-self. In fact, it is prior to that little drama, and always has been. As it so happens, we have been focusing on what changes, and so have missed that which never does.
The conventional wisdom is that we need to do something, change or fix something, make something happen, fight the good fight, in order to attain freedom. We chase after the latest guru on the satsang circuit, buy up all the recommended books and tapes that promise a glimpse of freedom, fold our legs into pretzel shapes and bow in prostration thousands of times while mumbling esoteric formulas, change our name, our costume, our address – there seems no end to the hoops we jump through.
As noted earlier, even the motive to surrender is actually a strategy of ego-mind. After all, who is the one trying to let go, if not the one who believes themselves to be bound? In reality, there is no bondage, and thus even “freedom” is ultimately recognized to be a mental fabrication, a designation that applies to nobody. Nobody surrenders. Only surrender surrenders, which is why it cannot be brought about by egoic effort. As the sage Lao Tzu wrote: “By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond the winning.”
Indeed, any effort to liberate oneself turns out to be just the desperation of the fearful mind, the mind of ignorance, the mind that avoids true self-recognition while claiming it as its goal. In reality, peace is not an attainment, but the actual nature of who and what we are. What can be let go is any effort to manipulate life and experience, and instead just leave everything as it is. After all, what effort is required to notice things exactly the way we experience them?
All we need do is stop putting energy and attention on the imaginary, which includes the dream character we have taken ourselves to be, with all of its complicated patterns of craving and avoidance. Rather than fueling and strengthening our presumed shackles through struggle and resistance, we can let go of the whole premise that there has ever been anyone bound.
When we sit quietly and observe our mind, we can notice a steady stream of thoughts that vie for our attention. However, if we let go of them as they arise, they will eventually diminish. Our normal inclination is to be seduced by our thoughts, constructing a sense of self in the process, but there is a greater wisdom in not believing everything we think. Moreover, denying attention to the passing parade need not turn into a big project or complicated scheme.
In that regard, the Burmese master Ajahn Chah wrote: “The heart of the path is quite easy. There’s no need to explain anything at length. Let go of like and dislike and let things be. That’s all that I do in my own practice. Do everything with a mind that lets go. Don’t accept praise or gain or anything else. If you let go a little you a will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.”
Indeed, by refusing to be drawn in by the neural sirens that obstruct clear recognition, a spaciousness replaces the busy-ness of our internal chatter. This sky-like spaciousness in turn allows our true peace to emerge from the background, and thus, little by little, take its proper place as the foundation and guiding light of our life and relations. As Pema Chodron said so succinctly, “We are the sky, everything else is just weather.”
When we recognize the peace that has always been true of us, the ego-mind surrenders the throne, but is not banished from the kingdom. Rather, it naturally assumes its appropriate role as servant, rather than master. We need the self-sense to function in the objective world, and it can act as a valuable navigation tool, assisting us in discovering what we’re made of (which is, after all, a good part of the reason why we took these human forms in the first place). It’s really now a matter of refusing to dwell on any thought, sensation, emotion, memory association, or pretense of knowledge. All that arises is self-liberated by non-attachment, letting go, surrender. This is a great relief!
As one sage remarked, “Thoughts arise and pass away. If the succeeding thought does not arise, the preceding thought cuts itself off.” In that way, the struggle is never given an opportunity to take root, because it is constantly being undermined by the natural attitude of surrender, non-dwelling, release. What might begin with some effort eventually will become spontaneous, if we refuse to fall for the tricks of the mind, and its trap of identification with and fixation on the figments of its own confused designs.
Truly, all that is required is to stop investing our attention and belief in the unreal. Letting go of the unreal includes refusing to grant any enduring reality to anything that we can think, feel, know, or imagine. Ultimately, that simply means seeing what is, as it is. Nothing needs to be given up, except our habitual tendency to fall for the story of me and mine, with all its ensuing strife. When the motive to know and control it all is seen through and released, we can allow ourselves to be lived by the Mystery, which is none other than Love Itself.
We don’t need to run off to India or Japan, or to some monastery, ashram, or temple. We don’t need to spend years at the foot of some guru, tying ourselves in knots or banging our heads against a wall. Our happiness, peace, and freedom are already true of us, it’s just that we have been mesmerized by a fable of self-existence that has blinded us to our actual nature. Recognizing that story as just a story, we can let it go right now. Losing oneself to find oneself is more than just a pious cliché, but literally describes the actual process of Realization. Why postpone?
Once Hotei, the legendary “Laughing Buddha”, encountered another sage on the road. The sage asked him, “What is the realization of The Buddha Way?” Hotei immediately plopped his sack down on the ground in silent answer. “Then,” asked the other, “what is the actualization of The Buddha Way?” At once the Hotei swung the sack over his shoulder again and walked on.
first published on The Conscious Process