Sunday, October 09, 2011

ARTICLE ~ I Let Go - No 4


My teenage years were largely agnostic. Followed by a decade or so of rather indecisive atheism that lasted well into my late twenties. Once I passed thirty I seemed to overcome any residual hostility and began looking seriously into what 'a spiritual life' might actually be like, for me. Reading mostly about Taoism, I knew little or nothing about Buddhism as yet. So, when I bought Nirvana Tao* from a bookshop in Camden Town, I was more attracted by the 'Tao' than the 'Nirvana'. As a book I wasn't particularly taken with it. It was structured in two halves; one half looked at the Taoist approach to The Way; the second half the Buddhist approach to Nirvana. Its title implied a philosophical alignment between these two religious strands by placing them in comparative proximity. Yet it made no attempt to forge links at all. It just outlined the beliefs or practices of these two non-theistic traditions. Both traditions, as they were portrayed in this book, appeared to deliberately obscure what a spiritual life in practice might be. Mostly behind an esoteric veneer of inscrutability or circumspection.

Taoism had kick started my spiritual investigations in the late.1980's. Within a short space of time I was very familiar with its basic philosophy and outlook. Even though I remained intrigued, I was also incredibly frustrated and perplexed by it. For all its evident insights into the sources of human dissatisfaction,Taoism seemed deliberately vague about the details. What would you actually do as a consequence of these insights? Where were the Taoist practices? Indeed where were the Taoist practitioners, who could instruct you in the rediscovery of that natural union with the Way? Nada ! 'Nirvana Tao', despite trumpeting about containing the secret meditation techniques of the Taoist Masters, told me no such thing.

The approach to Nirvana, I now recognise was pure Vajrayana Buddhism, Tibetan style. Retrospectively cobbling the Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana strands of Buddhism into one seamless progressive path of practice leading to Nirvana. It described the various stages of higher consciousness in such precise detail, that they became quite dense and incomprehensible. I remember finding this an off putting presentation of what the Buddhist path was all about. If this was anything to go by, it didn't seem to be about real human experience at all, but something more akin to an intricately wrought flight of fancy.

Yet smuggled into the pages of these baffling expositions I did find a gem - some short verses about letting go,turning aside and putting down. At the time, I copied them out by hand and kept them pinned above my desk. Where they no doubt stayed until something else grabbed the focus of my spiritual enthusiasm. Whenever I've read them since, what I find in them seems superficially the same, but also subtly different. The relevance they had for me in my early thirties, is not like today's. At the time there was an obvious immediacy that impacted upon me. I recognised the emotional and mental preoccupations the verses covered. Inexperienced spiritually, I knew nothing yet about meditation or even what everyday spiritual practice might be, nor how they might help. I connected with these verses because I thought, somewhat naively, I might be able to do what they said. I was to remain clueless for quite sometime.

Letting go,turning aside and putting down is not concerned with secret teachings on higher levels of consciousness, about which I'd had no experience, and of whose existence I remained unconvinced. Nor is it theoretical or fantastical. It points directly to a multiplicity of attachments that are at the root of suffering, including my own. This was a reality I lived in every day. My life then, had very prominent veins of frustration and discontent sticking out and ruining its health and vitality. I was a deeply dissatisfied person at heart, frequently subject to prolonged bouts of melancholic sadness. Letting go,turning aside and putting down offered some kind of hope.

Traditionally, these verses were meant to be learnt, recited and inwardly reflected upon, but most of all practised. They present the full spectrum of our expectations, aspirations and experiences of life. The implication is that the ideals we hold about our lives, about how they should be, can become a form of prison or tyranny. Expectation and desire is indeed what engages us with our lives. It motivates us to carry on, to not accept defeat at the hands of misfortune. However,this very persistence can also turn on us and become our tormentor. Frequently, what we think we want is not what we really want at all. Our determination can become a substitute for self-belief. By loosening our insistent emotional grip upon these ideals, paradoxically, we could release more energy and a deeper sense of liberty. To be content or at peace with ourselves in the world, but primarily, to be able to just be. To just be, being more than enough.

Now, after a few decades of Buddhist practice, I'm in my fifties. From this time and perspective I can compare myself now with then, and recognise things have moved on. The emphasis I place upon my needs, perceptions and experience have undergone a slow but substantial transformation. Buddhist practice has been a great self-healer. I've a better grasp on the views and conditionings that maintain my unhelpful mental tendencies and emotional attachments. Though I'm still learning how you cultivate better ones. Today these verses on letting go,turning aside and putting down are stimulating a desire to gently put to rest some of the residual ghosts of past pain. Plus the thoughts and behaviours that accompany and ride in its wake. To let the fading spectre of youthful ambitions go. Relieve myself of the regret and the grief for them, that still lingers on in those easy to overlook corners of my present life.

This is the primary reason why I'm returning to these verses now. It's not just out of a fondness or idle curiosity. I've reached a particularly dry and intransigent phase on my spiritual path. Things I used to value highly are presently lacking the import they once had. Perhaps these verses are striking a deeper more resonant chord, because they're pointing towards something that's long overdue. Now is the right time for letting go.

We all tend to carry excess baggage, things we bear, or put up with, however burdensome and weighty they are. Old ideas and desires, the dreams we know we should have said farewell to years ago. We sentimentally regard these treasured past ideals, however moribund. They take up not just psychic space, but also act as a drag on our growth spiritually. Even though we've stopped actively pursuing them, we may still be holding out a slim chance they might happen one day. Lost ideals might yet be found, so we must remain the keeper of their flame.

They might appear innocuous or innocent on the surface, and not something to really worry about. However, I'm finding their background interference induces from time to time a heavy heartedness. One that quietly dampens my fully embracing whatever is currently in the foreground of my everyday life. It's like listening to a pop song on the radio that you really love, but each time it appears on the play-list somewhere in the background Radio Moscow keeps blaring in, hampering the depth and pleasure in your enjoyment. Until I really let go of these remnants of past times, turn aside from them, or simply put them down as underlying motivators, my instinct is telling me this current situation may not only persist, but worsen.

With what remains of my life an unknown quantity, though obviously daily diminishing. These are my final days, weeks, years or decades, so the quality, as well as quantity, of my life is becoming ever more precious. Something within me is asking me to change. The ground I'm currently occupying and working from, is putting in a request for a thorough make-over. I'm taking these verses on letting go,turning aside and putting down to be a sort of guiding guru, that I can learn from line by line. I intend to probe into and investigate them. To see what they evoke or conjure up, in terms of past, present or future perceptions, of dreams and aspirations, random connections or tenuous associations. What will be unearthed, or erupt from my imaginarium, as bit by bit I dig deeper into the emotional sediment they're buried in? We shall see.

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