by guest author Peter Fernando, A Month of Mindfulness
I received this honest and moving question a few weeks back:
If you have never bonded with your mother and so have never experienced secure attachment in a primary relationship, how can you work with non-attachment? And letting go? When you have never really experienced having anything to hold onto?
The first thing I should say is this: I am no expert in this field, so please don’t take my word as gospel. I can only reflect from my own limited experience. I may be wrong in what I share.
However this question, I am sure, echoes similar questions that many of us practicing in the West can have. Not many of us (if any) come to practice from a place of psychological health and wholeness. Many of us have come from dysfunctional families, suffered trauma, or have internalized the sense of alienation and emotional numbness that our culture can easily engender.
So if we pick up teachings on ‘letting go’ without being aware of the place that we’re coming from, we can become even more dissociated than before.
I say this from experience.
I went through a stage (read: phase) in my own practice where I decided to ‘really let go of everything’.
I was going to do it. Break though. Finish the job. And other such ego-based determinations… There was a naivety in this, and an honesty of intent, but what I didn’t see was that I was relating to myself out of attachment to some pretty hefty ideas in the first place.
Within the process of ‘trying to let go’, I didn’t notice that I had my teeth firmly stuck into a whole bunch of ‘shoulds’.
Ideas like, ‘I should be above this stuff’. And ‘I am wrong for having all these messy feelings’. In service to those commandments the mind, or the heart, can easily try to get into a space where our human-ness is somehow neutralized, or where we are ’empty’. If we don’t have a spiritual community around us to reflect the oddness that ensues, we may even equate this state with ‘non-attachment’.
I did, stubbornly, for some time, until my teachers and peers started to hint that ‘uh-hum, you may have lost the plot, my friend…’
In many ways the state I had begun to cling to resembled what is known as ‘dissociation’ in psychological terms. This recognition, as it dawned, was actually very good news.
Why? Because it allowed me to bring a sorely missed feeling of compassion into the process. It allowed me to start where I was, rather than trying to overshoot myself in order to get into some idealized state that I imagined non-attachment to be. And to be honest, we know in our heart of hearts that it’s not it. Because it feels barren and lifeless anyway!
On the other hand, as I reflected on those around me, I began to notice that all of my teachers were simultaneously care-free and deeply human at the same time. In their presence I got the sense that their letting go, their emptiness even, had not come about through some kind of willful repression, or through entering into a kind of altered state of reality – but rather, sometimes eye-openingly so, through a descent into their own raw, vulnerable humanity from a place of wisdom, patience, and deep compassion.
Part of this seems to require a recognition of what we, as unique personalities, with unique kinds of conditioning, need in order to unfold and grow. It has become an accepted reality in the West, since the early blossoming of interest in meditation in the 1970s, that you have to have a healthy sense of self in order to begin to let it go. Conceptually that may seem like a paradox, but when we enter into practice in a sincere way, it makes perfect sense.
The sense of self, in this example, is more than an idea – it is a capacity to be present with experience without folding into reactivity, closing down into self-aversion, or blocking out experiences through fear or hate. Some of these tendencies kick in when we are very young, and if they are particularly strong, they require a great sensitivity and patience to begin to unfold in awareness.
Trying to let go of them, or even to ‘stop being so silly’ never works. In a way we have to be willing to be fully ourselves in order to taste a quality in the heart which is more transpersonal, or universal.
Since my forays into the realm of dissociation-disguised-as-non-attachment I have found that one of the most significant forces in the mind to begin to let go of is the attachment to fixed ideals of ‘letting go’! In fact, perhaps the most important letting go for many of us is the ability to (wisely and safely) let go into the rawness of our selves, including the pain, the loss, the broken-ness and the imperfection that we find there.
Of course, this doesn’t mean amplifying these forces, or giving up the aspiration for healing, growth and ultimately, Awakening. To me it’s about feeling into that Middle Way, where our aspiration manifests as a complete willingness to feel who and how we are, and attend to what we find in the way that it most needs. Uniquely, personally, free from the tyranny of comparisons and judgments.
One of my teachers, Ajahn Sucitto, describes this as the kind of organic growth that happens to plants. Rather than a seed trying to force itself to become a tree, it gradually unfolds, allowing itself to be nourished by the sun, the rain, the earth – and the transformation happens on its own.
So, for the courageous person who asked the question above, this may mean taking it slow, finding ways of healing the absence, or the void that has been left over from those formative experiences in childhood. We can never put a timeframe to it – it happens as it needs to. The one thing I would encourage you to keep in mind is to not believe the feelings of being ‘wrong’ or that you are ‘failing’ for being who you are. No one is judging your practice. You have full permission to do the work as you need to – in your own way, and in your own time.
Within that attitude, in my opinion, is the essence of letting go itself.