Letting Go

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Whenever a thought arises, immediately let it go

Ming dynasty Chan Master Hanshan Deqing (1546-1623) [not to be confused with Hanshan (ca. 800-900 CE), the Tang dynasty poet] taught people to practice by letting go of thoughts as they arise in the mind. Whenever a thought arises, immediately let it go. This does not mean resisting or rejecting the thought; it just means not letting it affect you. So, if you are not getting anywhere in your meditation, the reason is probably that you are unable to let go of your thoughts. Even when you are paying very close attention to your method, stray thoughts may appear. This is very common, especially in the beginning. But rather then letting it disturb you, let it be a cause of your working harder on the method.

Take your attention off the thoughts

The problem with stray thoughts is that the more you try to reject them, the more they will surface, because the effort to reject them is itself a stray thought. Like flies hovering around a plate of sweets, if you shoo them away, they will be back the moment you take your attention off the plate. The best way to deal with this is simply to ignore the wandering thoughts, and eventually they will go away, just like the flies.


The second problem is not being aware that you are having stray thoughts. By the time you become aware, you are already following a whole new train of thoughts other than the method. This is like dozing while riding a horse that leaves the path to go grazing. By the time you wake up, you are already off the path. This type of wandering thought is most likely to happen when you are mentally or physically tired.


Just drop them as they arise

When you realize you have wandering thoughts, don’t get upset. Anxiety will just cause more thoughts to appear. Instead of regretting that you were immersed in wandering thoughts, just let them go; relax your mind and go back to your method. To practice letting go, first, let go of the past and future and just be in the present. That is not as easy as it sounds, since stray thoughts usually are connected with the past or the future. But even if you are able to let go the past and the future, at some point, you must also let go of the present. Letting go of the present has two aspects: the external, meaning the environment; and the internal, which consists of your body as well as your mind. First we must give up the outer environment because contact with it through our senses will lead to sense impressions, which can lead to thoughts. If we weren’t aware of anything outside it would be impossible for thoughts to even arise. The temperature, cars, birds, wind, people walking, light or darkness, the sound of someone breathing, all influence you to give rise to stray thoughts. Since it is normally impossible to meditate where there are no outside impressions, the best thing is to let go of sensations coming from the environment. Until you reach the point of concentrating only on your mind and your body, you will hear noises from outside, but just drop them as they arise.


Observe the pain as tolerant nonconcern with body

After letting go of the environment, let go of yourself beginning with the body. Long ago, there was a Chan practitioner who always fell asleep while meditating. To cure the problem, he placed his meditation seat on a rock at the edge of a cliff. He knew that if he dozed off he would fall into the ravine. A person like this will practice very well because he is prepared to die if he does not practice well. So, if you’re always worried about all kinds of bodily discomfort—being hot or cold, pain in the legs, itching, and so on— and indulging your body at every turn, then you will never enter a good condition of meditation. Some people may think it’s easier to let go of the body than the environment, but it is extremely difficult not to pay attention to your body. When you itch, it seems the longer you try to endure it, the worse it gets. So you think that if you just scratch it, the itch would go away. But once you give in and scratch, another part of your body will itch. If you can just ignore it, the itch will eventually go away. Similarly, to deal with pain you should not tense up as that will make your whole body painful. Just relax and isolate the pain and think, “It’s just my knee that’s hurting; that has nothing to do with the rest of me.” Better, just observe the pain with the attitude of tolerant non-concern with your body. Observing your pain may make it seem more painful, but eventually it will disappear. After doing this, you will be able to return to your method with better concentration. If you just keep single-mindedly on the method, eventually you will forget even the existence of your body. When there is neither environment nor body, there is still one thought left, awareness of the self. The final step is to let go of even that, and that would be letting go of the mind.

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From Chan Newsletter No. 24, September, 1982

Mindfulness and Daily Life



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