We are attached to our memories and to our resentments. We are attached to our political preferences, heartaches, clothes we don't wear anymore, our version of the facts, habits, anger, fears, and heartaches. We are attached to the past and to our hopes for a better future, attached to our last argument with our spouse. We hold on to bad relationships and low self-esteem, and because of attachments we find it difficult, if not impossible, to stop doing certain things or being attracted to people who are not good for us.
However, despite all that we might have heard about the value of "letting go" or non-attachment, we have all, at times, found that it's difficult to actually do it. Even when holding on is painful, oftentimes we do it anyway.
I think about non-attachment in terms of stages, like the stages of a rocket launching from earth. With each successive stage -- one, two, and finally three -- a rocket rises farther and farther away from earth's gravitational pull. Similarly, the more completely you apply non-attachment, the more you move farther and farther away from the pull of all the things that keep you from living your life to the fullest.
We've all applied some measure of stage I of non-attachment -- if not, we'd wind up buried under the weight of past hurts and resentments, disappointment and loss. Stage I of letting go is critical to reducing our grief, pain, and anguish to at least a level that is manageable.
At stage II, surrender ripens and becomes an instrument of change and growth. At this level, non-attachment allows us to abandon non-constructive beliefs and behavior and thus make it possible to achieve things (and to live a life) of which we would otherwise not be capable. Stage III is its ultimate expression. Non-attachment at this level opens us to the most profound heights of spiritual awakening, fearlessness and freedom.
In this post, I'll explore stage I of non-attachment. In my next two posts, I will examine how to apply stages II and III.
Please take a moment to recall an experience from your past that has had a significantly negative impact on you. Reflect on any circumstance or condition that was emotionally, physically and/or spiritually hurtful. You can reflect on a childhood event -- your parents' divorce, financial stress in your family, or the death of a close family member. It can be something contemporary -- a disappointment at work or with your family or a strained financial situation, the aftermath of which has caused you to feel, think, or act in ways that have made it harder to trust or, in short, to be fully yourself. Consider the specifics of how this event negatively affected you, your relationships or any other area of your life.
Reflecting this way should make it clear that your past can (and invariably does) influence your present and, thereby, your future. Circumstances do not need to be traumatic to significantly affect you and the way you respond to the world. But, they don't have to.
History is full of remarkable individuals who -- although they endured extremely hurtful and potentially debilitating things like the loss of loved ones, war, prejudice, abuse, disease and severe poverty -- did not allow circumstance to prevent them from living inspiring and even extraordinary lives. The lives of Anne Frank, Victor Frankel, and Nelson Mandela, for example, remind us that we are each capable of creating productive and even glorious lives despite having to live through dire events.
Everyone who has ever overcome hardship or adversity has done so in large part because he or she has chosen, consciously or unconsciously, to "let go" of their past hardship and pain by embracing, what I call, a Miracle Angle -- a way of seeing their circumstances that allowed them to transform their circumstances into a spark for positive change.
How is this possible? How, for example, was Nelson Mandela able to transcend apartheid and three decades of imprisonment when some of us struggle to forgive someone who cut us off in traffic?
The key rests in your willingness to surrender your attachments to your perception. In other words, can you let go of a less than constructive point of view for a different one that empowers -- instead of debilitates -- you to live more freely and fully? I call this empowering point of view a Miracle Angle, precisely because it creates the opportunity for growth, healing, and freedom where previously there may have appeared to have been none.
The basis for this kind of acceptance is the knowledge that there is no single perspective on any situation that can be said to be absolutely true. One of the central tenants of most Eastern contemplative traditions is that life is essentially "empty." This means that our responses to our life circumstances -- good, bad, and indifferent -- have nothing to do with the conditions themselves and everything to do with our projection or interpretation of those events.
An extreme example of this is death. Most of us assume that there is only a single way to view it; death is loss, something to mourn, something that should evoke profound dread. However, in some parts of the world, death is seen less as a loss and more as something sacred, an auspicious time or doorway that, if walked through consciously, is an opportunity for spiritual awakening.
If death has no single meaning -- no one particular angle from which it can be interpreted -- then there is no single way to view any experience. The ancient traditions tell us that every perspective on "reality" (good, bad, or indifferent) is just that, one perspective -- one degree of what is actually 360 degrees of reality.
The mind of enlightened sage sees this inherent emptiness of all things and thus, accept everything equally -- think of Christ on the cross and his response vs. how most of us would react. The result is that an enlightened mind remains free by remaining unattached to false projections.
On the other hand, most of us, consciously or unconsciously, assign meaning to everything. The point is that since your way of seeing and responding to all situations is necessarily arbitrary -- no perspective is right or wrong -- then you might as well choose a point of view that can help you and your life.
There will always be more than one way to respond to any circumstance, but most importantly, there is only helpful and non-helpful to see and respond to life. The fact is your freedom and ability to live fully and free from suffering is entirely dependant on you learning to do just that.
The easiest way to gauge whether you are seeing circumstances in your life from a Miracle Angle is whether or not it is causing you to suffer. If something from your past is causing you pain or if you have become stuck in a non-constructive point of view, it means that either you are not living from your Miracle Angle or you have not fully embraced it. If it is the first -- if you are struggling to find a perspective that lifts your spirits and empowers you -- it is vital that you open yourself to another view of it. Remember, every situation has at least one Miracle Angle.
The following exercise will allow you to find yours. Take a moment to write or think (it is more powerful if you write) about the experience you considered earlier. However, this time decide how this experience has helped you -- or how it could help you, contributing something to your life.
This may require you to dig deep and can be easy or quite challenging, depending on the circumstance and whether or not until now you've been able to come to terms with it. If you've dwelt on the pain associated with the event without ever having achieved any resolution about it, finding a way to look at it from a viewpoint that focuses on its potentially positive effects may take a while.
If the circumstance you chose to write about earlier was particularly tragic or extreme, it may be a struggle to find anything redemptive about it. It may be that its only positive impact is that it taught you that you could survive, or that your experience could be a living testament to others that they too can survive difficulty/tragedy.
It's important not to start writing until you have given yourself whatever time you require to find that new perspective and a way of relating to the experience or event that is authentic to you. Once you have an understanding of the potentially-positive effects of the incident, start writing. Write only about how it was or could be helpful, how it empowered or could empower you. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you decide what to write.
- What has the experience or event taught you?
- How has it strengthened you?
- How has it helped you in your relationships with other people?
- Has it helped you to become more compassionate, more ethical, more inspired, more capable?
After you have written a paragraph or two from this new perspective, ask yourself if it would help you to start viewing it from this new perspective from this point forward.
Once you have found what you think is a Miracle Angle, if you still feel less than at peace with your situation, it means you are not yet living from it. Once you detach yourself from your "grievances," however justified they might be, and you abide within the perspective of your Miracle Angle, you will find yourself embracing the gift of life and living it more fully. This is, in fact, where stage II of non-attachment comes into play.
I strongly urge to find your Miracle Angle as often as possible. Don't sleep on your resentments, pain, and suffering. Make it a habit to find the Miracle Angle from which to look at any circumstance that may be troubling you. You might not instantly feel uplifted by the change in perspective, but it will provide you with the understanding and acceptance from which you can move forward with a clearer sense of purpose and ultimately, the freedom to live fully.
Excerpt adapted from The Four Desires by Rod Stryker. Copyright © 2011 by Rod Stryker. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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