Sunday, January 31, 2010

How to Let Go — and What to Let Go Of

In certain parts of Asia, they have an ingenious method for catching monkeys alive. The hunter cuts a hole in a coconut just big enough for a monkey to reach in with its hand, but not big enough for it to remove its closed fist. Then the hunter puts a ripe banana inside, attaches the coconut to a string, and waits. Upon grabbing the banana, the monkey becomes so attached to keeping the fruit that it refuses to let go, and the hunter can reel the animal in like a fish on a hook.
As I mention in Chapter 6, your mind is like a monkey in more ways than one. Not only does it leap about from thought to thought like a monkey in a tree, but it also has the annoying tendency of holding tightly to certain ideas, opinions, thoughts, memories, and emotions, as though its life (and yours) depends on it — and pushing away others with equal force. This constant shifting between attachment and aversion causes you stress because you’re constantly struggling to control what can’t be controlled. Thoughts and feelings come and go whether you like them or not, and the stock market falls and relationships end despite your preferences to the contrary. In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, people recite the following prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In meditation, you develop the power to control or change what you can — not the events or circumstances of your life, but how you relate to them — and the peace of mind to accept what you can’t.
Meditation teaches you how to loosen your monkey-grip on your experience and create a kind of inner spaciousness and relaxation by letting go of control and allowing things to be the way they are.

Making an effortless effort

When I was a neophyte meditator, one of my teachers, the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, used to say somewhat mysteriously, “Follow the wave, drive the wave.” But I never really knew what he meant until I started to surf. Now I understand! When I’m out there on the ocean floating on my board, alone with the wind and the sky, I’m excruciatingly aware of how small and insignificant I am in comparison to the awesome power of the water. It would be presumptuous of me to say that I surf the waves — in fact, the waves surf me! I know that I can’t possibly attempt to control the water in any way. Yet I do need to exert a certain effort: I need to concentrate on the swell, paddle at just the right time, and position my body in just the right way to catch the wave at its apex so that it can carry me to the shore. And I need to stay focused as I shift my weight ever so subtly from side to side in order to ride the wave as fully as I possibly can.
Well, meditation is like surfing. If you push too hard and try to control your mind, you’ll just end up feeling rigid and tight, and you’ll keep wiping out as the result of your effort. But if you hang back and exert no effort at all, you won’t have the focus or concentration necessary to hold your position as the waves of thought and emotion wash over you.
Like surfing — or skiing or any sport, for that matter — meditation requires a constantly shifting balance of yang and yin, driving and following, effort and effortlessness. As I mention in Chapter 1, concentration is the yang of meditation (focused, powerful, penetrating) and receptive awareness is the yin (open, expansive, welcoming). Although you may have to exert considerable effort at first just to develop your concentration, try not to become tense or obsessive about it. Let your effort be effortless, like a seasoned surfer’s. Eventually, your concentration will arise quite naturally and take only minimal effort to maintain, and you’ll be able to relax and open your awareness to whatever arises. Even the notions of yin and yang (awareness and concentration) will ultimately drop away, and you can just be, with effortless effort —which is the real point of meditation.
In addition to effortless effort, meditation poses a number of other paradoxes that the mind can’t quite comprehend but that the body and heart find easy to grasp. To practice meditation, it helps to be
  • Serious yet lighthearted: After all, meditation is about lightening up —yet, if you’re not serious enough, you won’t make any progress.
  • Alert yet relaxed: Learn to balance these two qualities in your meditation. If you become too relaxed, you risk falling asleep, but if you’re too alert (that is, wired), you could become tense.
  • Spontaneous yet restrained: You can be totally “in the moment” and open to whatever arises in your awareness without becoming impulsive or indulging every fantasy or whim.
  • Engaged yet dispassionate: While being focused and attentive, you can avoid getting caught up in the compelling and emotionally charged stories your mind spins out.

Applying yourself “earnestly”

Where self-restraint keeps you from doing what might be harmful or unhealthy and wholeheartedness supplies the spark that ignites your meditation, earnestness keeps bringing your mind back to your focus. No matter what thoughts or feelings arise to seduce you away, you just keep plugging along — following your breaths or chanting your mantra or paying mindful attention in everyday life. Just as it takes consistency to return to your sitting day after day, it takes earnest application to return to the focus of your meditation moment after moment, without struggling or giving up. Earnestness isn’t sexy or exciting — it’s just essential!