This summer, I've been blessed by numerous peak experiences. I traveled for three weeks to Israel, sat 10 days on a Buddhist silent meditation retreat, went to Burning Man again, taught at two weeklong personal growth seminars, and somewhere in there had time to relax with my partner, family and friends, like many of us do in the summer.
Having returned to the pace of New York life in September, there's a temptation to hold onto these wonderful experiences. But which one? As I sit on the subway, do I contemplate the breath and recall the calm and bliss of my retreat? Or do I call to mind the juicy, ecstatic experiences out in Black Rock City? Which great moment should I try to hold onto?
Of course, even a novice at spiritual practice knows the answer to that question: none. Spirituality is all about letting go, surrendering into the present moment -- that kind of thing. Right?
Well, partly. While I have experienced -- and want to affirm -- the absolute centrality of letting go, in profound as well as mundane contexts, I would like to complicate it somewhat also. Because it matters what you're letting go into -- and that, I think, is actually the harder part of the work.
First, the affirmation. Yes, contemplative practice is, in large measure, a process of instructing the mind (and even, we are learning, the brain) in the art of letting go. This is noticeable even in the most minute movements of mind. At this moment, are you being pulled by an interesting link to the right of this story? Are you restless? Is there something, somewhere that you are craving? Sure there is. Five billion years of evolution have ensured that. It's all well and good to just "be here now," but our primate and primal ancestors who did that -- got eaten. The ones who escaped, hunted, and reproduced are the ones who were not satisfied with the present moment, the ones who developed keen senses of desire and aversion. We are the heirs of five billion years of kvetching.
And yet, we also know that kvetching is suffering. Dukkha. Clinging. Once you experience these sensations clearly, you see how unpleasant they are. So there arises a desire for deliverance from them -- even if just for a few minutes on the yoga mat or in front of the television. We are wired to be stressed, but we yearn to relax.
In my experience, this same movement of mind is present in the most profound moments of awakening, of which I'm fortunate to have experienced a few. At such times, the mind really lets go -- of its sense of self, identity, even existence itself. The mind "blinks" and all of experience -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- ceases. In some ways, this is a profound experience unlike any other. Yet it's also not so different from not reaching for the ice cream in the freezer late at night. It really is just letting go.
But letting go into what? Often, life is so cluttered with demands, to-do lists, and appointments that if I "let go" into that, I become a crazed and nervous wreck. The Hindu sage Ramakrishna once said that the mind is like raw fabric; it takes the color of the dye it's soaked in. Soak the mind in a quiet, relaxing environment and it will become quiet and relaxed. Soak it in New York City, and...
This is why "letting go" is not enough. Sure, if you can really let go of anything that's tugging you, including the annoying emails and the noise of the city, then what you let go into is indeed the present moment -- covered in lots of stormy clouds, but still the sky embracing all of it. This takes a lot of work, though -- so much that I'm not sure it's realistic to even aspire to it. Besides, if you're constantly letting go, you're not engaged, and engagement is often necessary for professional success and personal connection. What's needed for a Western life is more of an oscillation between letting go and sinking in. And that is more complicated.
What, then, is beyond "letting go"? Here are three proposals to consider.
First, practice. Work. Discipline. These old-fashioned values are what gets beyond the New Age into real spiritual life. Every contemplative tradition of which I'm aware talks about the need for regular practice (prayer, meditation, yoga, painting, contemplation, whatever). People laugh at the "WWJD" crowd, with their bracelets asking what Jesus would do, but really, a lot of spiritual practice is just like that: just a reminder of something you already know, but need to remember at key moments. If you are marinating your mind in Bloomberg machines and BlackBerry messages, you need to proactively marinate it in spiritual ingredients as well. After all, you are what you eat.
Second, that practice has goals -- but in a very specific sense. The "goal" of daily practice isn't the same as the goal of intensive practice. You're not trying to have the most exotic samadhi or mystical experience each day; you're trying to increase your spiritual viscosity, that property of slipperiness that enables you to move quickly and smoothly from mortgage payments to spiritual truths, from linear achievement to present-moment love. In other words, the goal isn't to get somewhere, but to improve the capacity to get somewhere. If you've done enough intensive practice, your mind knows where that somewhere is -- after all, it's in the mind itself. You don't need to discover new territory -- only to return with ever-decreasing friction to what you know is truest, most authentic, most real.
Third, and this may be the most difficult piece of all, if you're letting go into a cesspool, you need to get out of the cesspool. Let's revisit that quip from Ramakrishna about the mind being like fabric taking on the color of dye. I've found over the years that this simple teaching is among the most difficult to actually live out. The mind really is malleable. On retreat, in a yoga class, or cuddled up on the sofa with your friends or family, "you" really are compassionate, loving, and wise. So why are you suddenly such a jerk in the parking lot? Well, the mind is adapting to different circumstances, and carrying "you" along with it.
Marketplace spirituality thrives by telling folks they can have spiritual peace simply by buying a product/class/book/technique. But that may not be enough. It's telling that the imperative the statue of Apollo commands in Rilke's poem is not "wow! look at me," but "you must change your life." In that moment of awe, a different self is conceived -- and from that transcendent moment, it is suddenly apparent that real life-changes are needed.
Of course, Rilke doesn't sell as well as the latest spiritual fad at the New Age store. It's a lot easier to tell people they can have their cake and eat it too, all while remaining gluten-free and thin. But in addition to daily practice and a clear sense of where it can take you, sometimes in order to let go effectively, you have to change what you let go into.
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