A few years ago. I had an email conversation with a friend, who like me had discovered some affinity for Buddhism, but couldn't quite go all in for it. She had the sense that her present suffering was secondary to her attachment to a difficult relationship, to her yearning for a child, to the idea of love. She (ironically) felt some guilt over this, and her inability to "let go" of her attachments.
As the conversation progressed, I responded: "If we were all Buddhas or Christs, then we wouldn't attach ourselves--and our sufferings and our sense of fulfillment--to other frail human beings. But being mere mortals, we crave the closeness and fulfillment that comes from sharing our lives with somebody else. And while I am enamored with many aspects of Buddhism, this is why I think in the end it's not a practical philosophy for me. Because I LIKE my attachments. I don't want to let go of them--my wife and kids, ambitions, desires, ice cream and pizza. I'll let go when I die--that will be soon enough--but while I'm alive I'm going to attach myself to the things that are meaningful to me. And I realize that this refusal to let go is an invitation for suffering. But suffering is part of the human experience, and in the great karmic scales, you need the pain in order to experience the joy. It's all part of one big mystery, and it's beautiful and terrifying, both empty and full. I guess that's just . . . life."
This was not so much wisdom from me as protest. I'm not sure what the Buddha would say to it. But I know what a woman named Oriah Mountain Dreamer thinks. She wrote a famous poem called "The Invitation," which is a call to do the exact opposite of letting go. The poem is a challenge to live life to the fullest, to experience the exquisite thrills and aches of life and relationships. She seems to have a particularly robust capacity for Carpe Diem. It's a beautiful poem.
by Oriah Mountain DreamerIt doesn't interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.
It doesn't interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life's betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain!I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it, or fix it.
I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn't interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithlessand therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see beauty even when it's not pretty, every day,and if you can source your own life from its presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”
It doesn't interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.
It doesn't interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.
It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.
I've been reading a companion book she wrote exploring these ideas. I enjoy it, but hers seems like an invitation to what? To suffering. To joy as well, of course. But the ultimate purpose of it all gets lost in the ecstasy of the moment. It's dancing for the sake of dancing. Hurting for the sake of hurting. We live, we laugh, we cry, we die. Hope it meant something to you. Is that it? Isn't there more? Why do I feel programmed to believe there is?
Which brings me back to letting go. I've had a few coffee-house conversations recently with other friends (looking at you, Steve and Scott!) where we've discussed this same thread: holding on versus letting go. It seems like there is a tightrope to walk, and the tension between the two provides the ballast. Hold on too tight? Life becomes exquisitely joyful or unbearably painful, but ultimately for naught, 'cuz we all gonna die. But let go of it all? Then what's the point of being alive in the first place. Either way, ultimate meaning evaporates. But being stuck in the middle of ambition and surrender seems to be a place to claim a speck of human dignity and purpose within this infinite cosmos.
It's a daily struggle, and a daily reprieve. Yin and yang.
For me, here are the biggest things I'm trying to let go of:
- My need to control the outcome
- My need to know the end game
- My need for approval from others
- My need for ultimate meaning
Still holding on . . .