“Letting Go” – it’s quite a buzzword, isn’t it? It sounds so easy – whenever you find yourself landed with something difficult, burdensome, or tough, just let go and – pop! – it’s gone. Sounds nice in theory. There are only two problems with this:
1. Wanting to let go of something is just aversion in disguise, which is another attachment! So, everytime we try to “let go” of something, we in fact end up creating more clinging within ourselves. Not necessarily to the same object, but it’s still clinging; effectively we are just shifting dukkha around.
2. It doesn’t work.
You see, we are in a very unfortunate situation here, in that the English language treats “letting go” as an active verb; it’s some kind of an action, something you actively do and perform. Sapir-Whorf has us all firmly by the ***** here. The impression we get is that everything that arises within ourselves has a little button afixed to it, and when we press that button it is somehow ejected and magically disappears forever. We just need to find that button, and push it. Problem solved!
But wait – how many of you have actually been able to do that? Can you look at something – anything – inside yourself, and simply decide to let it go, so you no longer cling to it? Why don’t you give this a try, right here, right now – close your eyes, focus on something you’d rather not want to crave / be averse to, and “let go”.
How did that work for you? Yeah, I thought so. I’m the same.
You see, in spite of what the English language would have us believe, letting go isn’t really something we can “do”. Once something has arisen within us, it’s already too late, and clinging in one form or another happens – of course, we can try to rid ourselves of it in various ways, or we can pretend it isn’t actually there by suppressing it using sheer force of will; we can even try to be wise, and just sit with it, allowing it to be there.
But letting it go? Really letting it go, so that we no longer cling to it? That remains elusive. It doesn’t happen just because we might decide that this is what we want to happen.
So what is the answer? When we look really closely at everything that goes on inside of us, we will notice very soon that our clinging to these things – craving or aversion – happens only because we are ignorant of the emptiness of these formations. We take all of these things – thoughts, memories, emotions, sensory impressions, etc etc – to be concrete objects, to be a part of ourselves, to be inextricably bound up in who we are.
But are they really? First of all, closer inspection reveals almost immediately that anything that arises within us must be impermanent, by virtue of the simple fact that it has arisen, and that it ceases eventually. No thought, emotion, etc stays with us forever; these things come and go all the time, like clouds in the sky. Secondly, the arising of all these formations is subject to conditions – they arise only if certain conditions come together in just the right way, at just the right time. That being the case, all mental formations are therefore without independent substance – they cannot exist independently from the conditions that gave rise to them. Likewise, are they really a part of us? Can we consciously decide to think a certain thought, to feel a certain way, to have a certain sense impression? Or can we consciously decide to not have one of these? Of course we can’t – so how can we say these formations are “us” our “ours”? It’s silly. And since they are impermanent, and don’t belong to us, how can they possibly be capable of ultimately satisfying us?
So there you go – anicca, anatta, dukkha. It’s the same with all mental formations, regardless of what they are. We cling to them, because we think they are somehow permanent, and have essence and existence in and of themselves – so we want to either hold on to them, or feel the need to get rid of them. It’s a reaction that is only natural!
It should be obvious now that clinging is subject to dependent arising; it happens because the conditions are there for it to happen. More specifically, clinging happens because we are ignorant of the true nature of the things we cling to. Therefore, to break this cycle, we must remove those conditions that give rise to clinging, meaning we must do something about our very own ignorance. Our innate tendency is to see things in the wrong manner, by taken them as something solid and worth clinging to. But in reality they aren’t – all mental formations are devoid of substance (i.e. arising only subject to separate conditions), forever fleeting and impermanent, and hence incapable of satisfying us. Once this is understand, really understood – not just intellectually, but heart-felt, on an insight level – then how could we possibly cling to them? The mind does not bother clinging to anything that is seen as not worth clinging to. Which is everything, without exception.
So, we don’t try to let go. Instead, we prevent the very act of clinging right from the start, by removing the condition that gives rise to it in the first place. This condition is ignorance – not seeing the emptiness of things. Once this emptiness is seen, really deeply seen, then clinging stops all by itself, because everything is finally understood as not being worth clinging to. And this seeing is a result of insight practice – training ourselves to look at things not in the way our minds habitually do, but rather through the lens of anicca, dukkha, anatta, which are the three aspects of emptiness.
This insight does not come from reading books, from intellectually toying with concepts, from listening to teachers, or from blind faith. It comes about only through direct practice – through really looking into ourselves, and actively employing this way of looking with anything that may arise. This is tough at first, but eventually the insights will come, and when they do it’s a deeply liberating experience.
This is the essence of the spiritual path we walk – not trying to “let go” (a nonsensical notion), but realising that there is nothing there to cling to in the first place. And with that realisation comes great freedom.