Saturday, November 19, 2011

ARTICLES ~ I Let Go - No 8


From time to time I decide to sift through my material possessions with the intention of trimming them down. This desire to physically throw out, give away, or recycle some aspect of my extended family of stuff and things, is familiar territory. When I was younger I lived for several years in the bedsit land that spreads in terraced braids across North London. If you've ever lived in, or visited, a single person bedsit, you'll know that space is at a high premium. There'll be a bed, sink, cooker, wardrobe, armchair and not much else. I had to live with the minimum possessions the room could hold. As an avid reader and music enthusiast I regularly had to prune my bookshelves and record collections, before I ran out of floor or shelf space. It seemed the only way to manage this gradual acquisitive accretion. Unless,of course, I preferred to live with books and records stacked and strewn across the floor like an endlessly shifting tide of scum. I didn't, but some people do.

The motives for this regular purging were mostly practical ones. I knew my interests were often fleeting, passing intoxications. Basically, just personal fads. Much of what I read I knew I'd never read again. The fast moving trends in my musical tastes meant that artists I was passionate about one month, I'd be indifferent towards the next. So to some extent this pruning, refined and adjusted my possessions to keep them up to date. Aligning them with where my current enthusiasms were. It was in the nature of this craving for the new, that it satiated my hunger only for a while. I became used to the shifting impermanence of my musical appetites. As long as I could buy myself a thrill, then I was happy.

This restless craving has been frequently matched by another- a craving for pastures new. The desire to find a place where I could be free from dissatisfaction,disappointment and boredom. To date I've moved house or town not once or twice, but nearly two dozens of times. Only in the process of moving, as the boxes of packed up belongings mounts, that you notice exactly how much you own. Do I own enough to fill a small white van,once, twice or thrice,or is it now measured in the number of transit or full scale removal vans? To move is stressful because of the practical as well as psychological logistics. The difficulties in relocating the external aura of our possessions mirrors that for ourselves. After all, we are packing up and relocating our whole extended identity. As this cardboard haystack gradually fills up the removal van, it can feel like its getting psychically heavier. As though our spirit and ability to be free to spontaneously up sticks and just move, is being seriously hampered by having to cart our beloved possessions along behind us.

We tend to accumulate possessions in situations where we feel settled. Its an essential part of putting down roots - when our belongings find a place to belong too. They fix us to a particular place and way of living. As we filter through what we own, we are bound to review or weigh up who we've been and who we currently are. Should we keep that book – is it time we jettisoned that gift we've never used, but sentimentally still hold onto? We instinctively understand that we could discard forever all the residual memorabilia of who we once were. There are other things perhaps we'd like psychologically to put behind us, but can't. To be rid of the objects that remind us of a difficult period in our lives, to erase all evidence that the pain of it ever existed – might be a seen as a first step in getting over it.

Our possessions are like exhibits in a museum that holds all our past life experiences, a physical memory bank. A person, a place, a snapshot image of us – enshrined in a book, record, picture, ornament, piece of furniture or clothes. These define, but also confine who we are, or can be. Today, the size and range of what I own, I can sometimes find imprisoning. The sense of ownership feeling oppressive. Its as if I'm existentially being held under water. Drowning under the weight of my physical possessions. No longer able to swim freely or unencumbered. Over the years the number of my dependants has grown obese through regular feeding, clothing and emotional support. A drastic diet is nearly always called for.

This weightiness is felt on a gut level. I really don't need them resting so heavily on my shoulders. If I visualise myself as being free, I see myself throwing of clothes as I run naked across an open field. As if I'm casting off all the cares, concerns and obligations my world and I place upon myself. Leaving everything scattered behind me as I run free of all physical, mental or spiritual possessions. This visionary image pre-dates my life as a practising Buddhist, which in a way was begun as a practical way of actuating it. The Buddha himself, described the state of Enlightenment, as feeling like a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, as though he'd put down a burden he'd been carrying, How to be truly free, is a question that often drives humanities search for meaning and purpose.

These days, as a 'good Buddhist' I frequently question myself about the whys and wherefores, of whether I should really be owning so much? Wouldn't I feel so much better if I was free of it all? and think that I would. These things, however, are never quite as simple as one might first think. If anything the act of throwing away is the easy bit. What is difficult is examining and scrutinising what ones reasons for doing so are. What was your volition and motive in doing this? Our motives are generally either mixed or conflicted, which is OK, just as long as we know they are. The degree of clear-headedness and purity in our motivation to take action,will define how spiritually effective our renunciation will be. It is, therefore, hard to dispose of our possessions in a vague, superficial or absent minded way. To consciously throw something away, put it down and walk away from it, is a deliberated act.

Tradition says that when the Buddha left behind his princely life of wealth and privilege, he took nothing with him. He let go of owning anything other than the most basic of possessions required to survive - a robe and a bowl. He instinctively knew he had to do this if he was to achieve what he wanted to spiritually. This 'going forth' as its traditionally called, into a homeless, possession-less life became the prerequisite act, an essential foundation for the future spiritual progress of his disciples. It has become synonymous with the beginning of a persons aspiration for liberation.

My past life, my present life, the history of my desires and attachments are preserved in all my material possessions. They represent outwardly who I am. Who I am has a threefold nature – there is the real true me - the me I desire to be - and the me I want the world to see. The Vidyavajra that others see, ranges across a spectrum from the authentic to the artificial. My possessions are hence also a mixture of those that truly represent me and my interests, and those that are window dressing. Contemporary Western consumer culture exploits this threefold nature of - who we currently are - what we'd like to be - and how we want others to see us – in order to get us to buy things. We buy because of the need for one brief moment to transcend our limitations. Quite often we are trying to overcome the dullness of our poor self image. To possess something we imagine will complete who we want to be, or be seen as. To have it - is to be it. This is not just an expression of our individuality, but the living out of a worldly form of liberation. I am free because I can buy whatever I want.

For this to work, one hasn't to care too much about what maybe the exploitative origins in distant lands, where much of what we buy is made. One person's liberty can often come at a cost to someone else's, far far away. Its rare for any material possession to have an origin entirely free of some veins of exploitation, guilt, embarrassment or some level of distaste or regret. Our wealth and need for self-expression can therefore carry with it something uneasy and unethical lurking in the background. So if we can let go and be free of the need to fulfil the craving and desire to buy it can be quite uplifting and insightful, even an ethical release.

Ajahn Brahm, defines freedom in a different way to this, one that is important to our reflections on letting go;~
'Freedom is being content to be where you are.
Prison is wanting to be somewhere else.
The Free World is the world experienced by one who is content.
The real freedom is freedom from desire, never freedom of desire.' 1

So being free to have anything we want, can have its origins in a deep seated, even unconscious discontentment. We often don't care what we do in order to get some relief from this, just so long as we get it. We are imprisoned by our need to be someone else other than who we actually are. So looked at from the perspective of freedom, the process of letting go as outlined in the verses, are pointing towards a way to liberate us from the compulsive following of our desires. First, when we put something down,we are saying we have the intention at least, to be content to stay put, and be with who we are. Secondly, we turn our attention away from any desire or attachment to being anyone else or anywhere other than right here. Thirdly, we conclude by discovering we have developed a contentment with who we actually are, and are no longer pulled all over the place by our desires and attachments. So we have here - setting the intention to be free, the desire to find a way to be free, and to be really free. To put down, to turn aside, to let go.

So finally, we have come to look at our verses, and what is the first thing we notice about them? Well, it is significant that each individual verse is prefaced by the same three phases – I let go – I turn aside – I put down. It would be a mistake perhaps to say these are sequential in how they should be read. We don't necessarily first let go, then turn aside and finally put down. As I've previously suggested, the opposite is experientially more true - that first we put things down, then we learn to turn our attention aside from them, and somewhere further down this road we realise we've let go of them. This is just my way of viewing and couching this. It might equally true be to say that letting go, turning aside and putting down are threefold aspects of one progressive cycle. One we go around and around. Perhaps spiralling upward with each circuit of putting down, turning aside and letting go. It may be the same impulse 'to let go' that is driving it all the way through, but it gradually permeates ever more widely and comprehensively.

Currently I view these threefold stages of letting go, as linked to the Buddha's Threefold Path, of Wisdom, Meditation and Ethics. I put down, seems an ethical impulse to stop doing something because it is in some way spiritually detrimental. It's weighing too heavily upon our spirits. We may not yet fully see the wisdom underpinning this, but we feel its ethical imperative nonetheless. But that compulsion alone is not going to be sufficient. Habit will keep drawing, if not sucking, us back into picking up what we've only recently put down. One has to keep turning aside ones gaze and mental attention from dwelling upon it once more. This requires a kind but vigilant awareness, a disciplined form of mindful attention. Something that is primarily cultivated and deepened through Meditation. This practice of turning ones attention away time after time, will gradually wear out and rub away all trace, and erase the root mechanism of our original attachment.

We leave no track marks in this epic journey. Its a journey that is curiously one of self-forgetting. A form of deliberate amnesia created by repeatedly turning your face away from the ardour of ones love for a thing. Until the ardour vanishes. When these things finally dip well below the conscious radar, when we've truly forgotten our attachment, then we might truly see that we've let go. Perhaps there is real wisdom in this seeing. Though our former love or attachment may still be surrounded by an aura of nostalgia, it is now seen for what it was, and more importantly for what it was not. The wisdom, lies in the seeing through. The process of letting go concludes when we can see right through our former love and attachment to something. What was once seen as a solid tangibly visible object of attention, is now seen as a figment of our fevered imagination. Seeing through the self-conjured nature of our love-filled attachments, is true wisdom.

The moment I start to consider throwing possessions away, is the moment I feel my attachment to them most strongly. This is often the moment,at the first hurdle, that my whole intention of putting things down starts to wobble. In order say, to make the process of disposing of redundant books easier, I've taken to making several piles to represent the full spectrum and degree of my attachment. Starting on one side with the stuff 'I definitely will not bin', the next being 'I would, if I was brave enough', then 'I ought to, but wont' then 'maybe, but not just yet' and ending in 'definitely wont, these are too precious' When these sort of responses emerge my intention to have a thorough clear out, falters badly. If I don't develop some firm resolve to see through my intention, the whole exercise will be a waste of time. I'm not turning aside from my attachment, I'm experiencing it and cuddling up to it, like a teddy I'm still rather too fond of.

This is not a new, nor that unique a response. It's not just me who experiences attachments, we all do, Our becoming attached is part and parcel of our coming into closer relationship with anyone or anything. The issue is really whether we can use this as a means of gaining personal insight or not. To create some distance from our attachments so we have some sense of there being a choice whether to respond or not. Otherwise we simply become ever more tightly enmeshed with and bonded to them? We all need to eat food in order to survive, to have energy for all the things we like to do. We can also enjoy and love good food, without it necessarily becoming a problem. There is no point when living in a world of pain, in prematurely eschewing the little pleasures that life can bring us. But when our love of food becomes more akin to an obsession, or a compulsive behaviour, causing us to balloon in weight and size. When love of food makes us become dangerously obese, then something has gone seriously wrong with this pursuit of pleasure.

Freedom to desire, to buy whatever I want when I want it, will not make me permanently healthy and happy. It may well bring about the opposite. Overtime, my youthful enjoyment of what was new and invigorating in popular music, began to lack depth. It drifted from being a simple pleasurable pastime into something I had to do, no matter what. Art that is genuinely new and innovative, can quite easily slip into being merely novelty. Though thrill inducing it may be thin beer, with no aesthetic life or enjoyment beyond its initial effects. Eventually I did lose not just my perspective, but also my desire and enjoyment of music for quite some time.

When I first became a Buddhist, I mistakenly thought I'd have to forgo enjoyments such as poplar music. However, this side of Enlightenment, when we are not yet free of our desires and attachments, and the depth of our practice is still too shallow to replace more worldly pleasures, we do still need them when things get emotionally difficult. We can do so in full knowledge that that's what we are doing. As Sangharakshita said regarding times when we encounter difficult mental states:~
'When all else fails, distract yourself' 2

1 - Taken from Who Ordered This Truckload Of Dung? by Ajahn Brahm, Published by Wisdom Publishing
2 - taken from Peace Is A Fire by Sangharakshita, Published by Windhorse Publishing.

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