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Giving Up Old Ways of Thinking

We are all born with a unique set of karmas that we must go through in this lifetime. Some seem to do it with ease, and others hold on to grudges, losses, and pain forever. One wonders, amid all the changes taking place in the world, “Are there things, concepts, behaviours that I can let go of, that I no longer need in my life?” There have been countless self-help books written about “decluttering our lives.” These books are flying off the bookshelves with massive sales. It is as if the more chaotic life becomes, the more we need to make sense of it and organize the chaos. Decluttering our physical spaces may be a metaphor for the cleaning of our inner spaces. The events of this year have perhaps allowed us to look closely at the habits of our lives, our relationship with the Master, and the path, in a new light.

The Master has gone to great lengths to urge us to rid ourselves of the clutter we have built up relative to the path. To bring our attention back to the simplicity of the teachings, he has repeatedly tried to steer us away from rituals and behaviours that distance us from the inner reality. Yet, it is our nature to grasp onto one myth and then another.

There is a story of a Buddhist monk trying to illustrate to his disciple the uselessness of clinging to concepts and grasping dogma on the path, and the burden he shoulders in doing so. In essence, the story revolves around the disciples’ need to cross a river. The disciple built a raft out of “grass, twigs, and leaves.” Upon reaching the other side of the river, the disciple decided that since it had carried him across the river, he would carry the raft on his shoulders for the rest of the journey, even though the raft had served its purpose. So, he took on the burden of carrying the raft upon his shoulders. The Buddha concluded, “So I have shown you how the dharma (teachings) is similar to a raft, for a purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.”1

Grasping and holding on to what we think is real and permanent is a barrier to our growth and experience on the path. We have heard that this world is an illusion, and yet we can reach out and touch our spouse, our child, our automobile, a cup, and they all seem real.

Because we tend to see the world as being fixed and permanent despite the experience that it is not, we become unhappy with its loss. We have been thrust into a world where everything is changing. We have been forced to change habits (some have lost jobs, children can’t go to school, we can’t even go shopping). We have been asked to stay away from touching others, and even to wear masks. The loss of our old ways of being has presented us with new challenges. Some of us may long to go back to the way things were. Some may see it as an opportunity.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “Spiritual maturity lies in the readiness to let go of everything. The giving up is the first step. But the real giving up is in realizing that there is nothing to give up, for nothing is your own.”2 What are we holding on to, when it is a law of the universe that everything changes?

We only have to look at our bodies to understand this. We know that we are growing old, our bodies are full of pain and disease, our eyes are growing dim, yet we struggle to stem the tide with one “fix” after another. Is it time to take stock and stop trying to hold on to what our life has been thus far? Is it taking up too much of our day to attempt to reverse the aging process? Have we become so self-absorbed, with our wrinkles and loss of our spry step, that we cannot accept that there is a purpose to our aging? Baba Ji once said that aging naturally is beautiful. So, in some manner, has he permitted us to let go of our image of ourselves as a physical presence with good teeth, ears, eyes, hair? Our ego sure seems to try and resist this notion of aging. Yet, does our holding on to an image of a younger self add to our mental load and burden?

If we let go of our minds’ ceaseless activity, our worries over the past, our emotions, and preoccupations with the self, what do we really lose? Holding on to these things is the very thing that keeps us from the remembrance of the Divine. We remain stuck in the thinking that everything here is real and we stay attached to its presence in our lives. What is the answer to this constant grasping, this trying to hold on to what was? If, as it is said, that the life of a human being has the purpose of discovering the Divine, how do we become spiritually mature enough to identify and let go of what has held us back?

Of course, the answer is meditation. But like every other aspect of our lives, we may have decided that just “showing up” and sitting on our cushions is enough. We may have become stuck and feel we aren’t making any progress. There is an old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing, in the same way, day after day, and expecting a different outcome. So perhaps overcoming this inertia that keeps us from profoundly and genuinely exploring our meditation is part of letting go of our concept of what effort is. The pursuit of wisdom lies in the ability to adjust course and continually look with fresh eyes at an old habit.

To truly declutter, our lives should revolve around our meditation. In Concepts and Illusions, it is said, “Bees, when caught in a storm in the fields, take up little stones to keep their balance in the air and not be easily carried away by the storm.”3 Our anchor in any storm is meditation and the Master. Through meditation, we can realize that everything here is temporary and maintain our balance and correct our course as needed. Meditation trains us to assume the perspective of accepting what is happening in our life. It lets us experience that the inner world we seek is the rock that we can stand on while everything around us is confusing and seemingly out of control. Meditation helps us to stop grasping and trying to keep things from changing around us and accepting what is. It is the only pathway to letting go.

Peter of Celles, in Thomas Merton’s book Contemplative Prayer, says:

God works in us while we rest in him. Beyond all grasping is this work of the Creator… This rest, in its effect, shines forth as more productive than any work.4

This is just another way to assure us that letting go of our judgments, our opinions, our concepts of “how things should be,” our indecision and our anxieties, while not an easy thing to do, is our way to the peace, balance, and rest that taking shelter in the Master and meditation provides for us.

  1. The Spiritual Guide, Vol. 2, p. 31
  2. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, quoted in Concepts and Illusions, p.124
  3. Concepts and Illusions, p.138
  4. Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p.59