Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Toxicity Twins

Letting go is an invitation to cease clinging to anything: be it an idea, a possession, an experience, a time in our lives, a point of view, a desire. It is a conscious decision to give up coercing, resisting, struggling. In exchange, we are granted the gift of wholesome acceptance, free of attraction to or rejection of; free of the stickiness of wanting, liking or disliking. Letting go is the allowing of things to be as they are. (from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are)

The ‘stickiness’, to which Kabat-Zinn refers, can (ironically) be a very ‘slippery’ creature, creeping into our thoughts and desires when we least expect; contriving all manner of justifications, rationalizations to support our choices; setting its hooks in ways that make it very difficult to shake loose. When we meditate, when we still the mind and open ourselves to a period of silence without ‘benefit’ of distraction or busyness, we are very often fertile ground for this little critter to nest in – let’s just call him attachment (or his equally dark twin, avoidance). Christening them two of the three poisons, Buddhist teachings feel sufficiently strongly about these two to assign them (together with ‘ignorance of the truth’ – i.e., self-delusion or confusion) primary responsibility for the dissatisfaction and unhappiness we experience in life. (And here I thought it was the Leaf’s not winning a cup since 1967.) Attachment (aka: addiction, obsession, codependence, control, greed, jealousy, conditionality – to name but a few aliases) and avoidance (aversion, phobic anxiety, hatred and resentment) are evidently a potent pair indeed.

Mindfulness practice is, at core, a bringing of awareness to a situation (or, in the words of a dear friend, ‘shedding the light of consciousness on. . .’) so that one is less ‘unconsciously’ controlled by it and becomes more an observer of it – and accordingly is better equipped to move past it (or to ‘let it go’ in Kabat-Zinn’s terms). Addressing the above two ‘poisons’ is yet another instance of this practice. Typically mindfulness practice suggests some variation on the ‘name and return’ protocol: when we become aware that we’ve been distracted away from the breath, we identify or label in some succinct way the source of the distraction (‘thought’, ‘sensation’, etc.); and return to the cycle of our breathing. In situations where the distraction is a little more stubborn, relentless, it is sometimes helpful to ‘address it’ directly. It’s sometimes useful to ask ‘what’s the pull?’ Not in the usual sense of attempting to ‘figure out’ the ‘why’ we keep returning to a particular image or situation (and only serving to get more caught up in the ‘intellectual’ aspect of the distraction); but rather taking the observer’s awareness to the spot, thought, or feeling that insists on ‘pulling us away’. This might involve shifting one’s attention away from the ‘stimulus’ – the object of our distraction – and back to the observer’s response to it: “what is arising in me as I sit in the presence of ________?”; “what do I experience?”

Notice too how you are relating to this image, thought, sensation. (Getting back to our two poisons), Am I attached to it – obsessing about it, ‘needing’ it? Fearful of its going, leaving, of losing it? Am I needing to control it; having it be a particular way, turning out in a particular fashion – to ensure my happiness (the conditionality of I’ll be content if and only if. . .)? Alternately, do I just need it to ‘go away’ – am I averse to or avoiding of this image, thought, or sensation? Do I resent its presence, perhaps rejecting it, even ‘hating’ it? These are not ‘analyses’ of what you are experiencing; they are simply suggested questions that may help identify the nature of your ‘relationship with’ the experience. Once established as attachment or rejection/avoidance, the work is done – no need to get caught up in the why.

Letting go of the need to have or make things be different than they are (in this moment) – or its flip side, lamenting that things are as they are right now – is an important element of this process as well. This is the letting be of what is, trusting that change is inevitable; circumstance will evolve in its own time; and equally we cannot hurry or force that process. Skills that come into play here are non-reaction and acceptance, the latter seen as one’s ‘agreement to experience a situation, to follow a process or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest, or exit’ (online definition). During meditation, a helpful exercise in this regard is to metaphorically place the person or image of a ‘triggering’ (preoccupying) situation on a chair – directly in front of and facing you, as you sit. (This is the metaphoric opposite of trying to avoid it.) Gently observe him/her/it. Develop a benign tolerance of his/her/it’s presence. No need to engage or respond – just observe, ‘sit with’. Being human, the investment we have in the object before us will change, usually diminish, as we remain, non-reactive and accepting of its presence. Again, back to the toxic tandem, the aspects of our relationship that ‘keep alive’ the intensity of this unholy bond with the overly desired or the intensely shunned is the degree to which we are attached or averse – not something inherent in the object itself.

A lovely poem (The Guest House) by the 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi, captures the essence of this unconditional ‘welcoming’ of circumstance – and the accompanying capacity to let go of our attachments and aversions:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

One final thought about letting go. Perhaps the most profound example of this process is that of grieving a loss. In his very helpful little volume (Grieving Mindfully), Sameet Kumar makes reference to a five-step, sequenced protocol facilitating closure, one that is equally applicable to much less weighty circumstances:

Examining our regrets around. . . (the apology)

Cultivating compassion toward. . . (the forgiveness)

Cultivating empathy / understanding of. . .(the loving)

Thanking for the gifts from. . .(the learning)

Letting go of . . . (the goodbye)

PP (post-post, as it were): We watched Inside Job last evening, a film that chronicles the 2008 financial crisis triggered by (of all things) greed and unaccountability in the US money market system. Great example of the extreme (world-wide) impact of attachment (and the later avoidance of responsibility) of some very selfish folks. Talk about your 'Money for nothing (and your chicks for free!)

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