Let Go or Get Dragged
by Lama Surya Das
A friend of mine named Eva, who manages a Buddhist
retreat center in the mountains of Switzerland, has a
yellow sticky hanging above her mouse pad as a reminder.
It says: “Let go or get dragged.” That about sums it
up for me.
I have been thinking a lot lately about acceptance,
and how it actually changes things. For example: have
you ever noticed how hard it is to change your mate,
while a little more acceptance goes a long way towards
transforming your relationship? Ultimately, I can change
myself; that is about as far as it goes, although the
ripple effect definitely filters further outwards. In a
deeper sense, transforming myself transforms the world.
That is why Buddha said: “When I was enlightened, all
were enlightened, even the rocks and the trees.”
Acceptance has its own transformative magic. Letting
go means letting be. Cultivating this panaceic inner
virtue has helped me become far more patient, tolerant,
empathic and open-minded. And lord knows, we could use a
little more of that in this violent, strife-torn world!
The Buddhist PeaceMaster Shantideva said, long ago:
“Anger is the greatest evil.
Patient forbearance is the hardest practice.”
Patient forbearance is the third transcendental
virtue and transformative power (“paramita”) of the
Bodhisattva, the peaceful spiritual warrior. Cultivating
inner discipline and integrity raises our standard for
living and brings purpose and meaning to our lives.
Facing our difficulties with courage and fortitude can
bring us spiritual satisfaction and riches beyond
measure. This is a time in our history to become sacred
warriors for peace, not warmongers or mere worriers.
Anger and fear are the roots of violence, as we know.
The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna said: “Contentment
is the greatest form of wealth.” Contentment should
never be confused with complacence and indifference.
There are various types of wealth in this world, but let
me assure you that cultivating equanimity, spiritual
detachment and heartfelt acceptance brings an
inexhaustible wealth of contentment. Incessant craving
and greed knows no end, like drinking salt water in a
misguided attempt to alleviate thirst. Cultivating
contentment and gratitude helps us appreciate what is
given rather than focusing on what may be missing or
Radical acceptance implies unconditional
friendliness, the kind of openness and love that allows
us to meet life as it is; which never throws anyone out
of our hearts, even if we don’t like what they may
think, say or do.
Love is far greater than the ego-based dichotomy of
likes and dislikes. Don’t you love your child or pet,
even when they disturb you and you dislike what they are
Of course we all want to be better people and make
this a better world. I do believe that we can and must
do so. Acceptance does not mean condoning the evils,
injustices and inequalities in life. However, it can
help us see more clearly what is, just as it is, and how
and why things work the way they do, before we attempt
to enter the fray. When we calmly observe and
investigate the causes of things, and the fact that
nothing happens by accident, we can see far more
clearly, and the truth reveals itself, whether we like
it or not. Cultivating patience and acceptance has
provided more mental clarity and spaciousness for me to
examine input before unthinkingly responding in the
classic stimulus-reaction pattern of habitual
conditioning common to most of us most of the time, and
at the root of so many of our problems.
Now and then, practice taking a sacred pause: breathe
once and relax, calmly enjoying a moment of mindfulness
and reflection before reacting -- this can dramatically
increases the chances of making better choices and
undertaking wiser actions. We simply have to remember to
do so, again and again, until it becomes a new habit.
Letting go means letting be, not throwing things
away. Letting go implies letting things come and go, and
opening to the wisdom of simply allowing, which is
called nonattachment. Sometimes we may not know what to
do. That is a good time to do nothing. Too often
compulsive overdoing creates further unnecessary
complications. When at a complete loss, some put down
their head, fold their hands, and rely on a higher power
for clarity, guidance and direction. Myself, I bow down
and, as it were, place my head in the lap of the Buddha,
and await inspiration. This actually works.
Patience does not mean passivity; acceptance does not
imply weakness, apathy, indifference or carelessness. We
can cultivate patient forbearance and loosen our tight
grip a bit by remembering the Buddhist mantra “This
too shall pass.” For it will, whatever it is. I like
to chant to myself the Buddhist slogan “Like a dream,
like a fantasy, like an illusion,” when things seem
claustrophobic and I am taking my preoccupations --
and this myself -- too seriously.
Keeping in mind the long term view and the bigger
picture can help a lot when we are struggling to untie
the knots in our karma, just like taking a rest from
struggling with a knotted shoelace or unsuccessfully
trying to remember something often leads to a sudden
breakthrough when the struggle ceases. Think to
yourself, when something is bothering you or a
disappointment arrives: how much will this matter to me
next month, next year, ten years from now? Is it really
a matter of life or death, as my emotional reaction
seems to insist, or just ephemeral local weather
conditions which will soon be replaced by other thoughts
and feelings? Thus, Buddha said to remind yourself that
everything is impermanent, fleeting, contingent, like a
dream, like an illusion. This will help loosen up your
tight grip on unreality.
Pythagoras said: “When you are in charge, do good;
when you are overruled, bear it.” This thought brings
me inner strength.
Lao Tsu says, in his renowned “Tao Te Ching”,
probably the wisest book ever written: “The master
does her best and lets go, and whatever happens,
Here is one secret of spiritual mastery and inner
peace, freedom and autonomy: It is not what happens to
us, but what we make of it that makes all the
difference. We can’t control the wind, but we can
learn how to sail better. It’s not the hand you are
dealt but how you play it, as the cliché goes.
Buddha said: “If you want to protect your feet, don’t
try to cover the whole world with leather; cover your
feet with shoes.” If we don’t accept ourselves, who
will accept us?
I like to remind myself to recite in my head Reinhold
Niebuhr’s wise prayer: “May I have the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change
the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Unconditional acceptance is not static but ecstatic,
vibrant, dynamically engaged in and connected with
reality. It helps us to meet life all along the length
of her gorgeous body, not just shaking hands with life
and wading in its shallows.
The spiritual hero strides fearlessly into life’s
depths, facing its incessantly undulating waves, without
holding back. Unconditional acceptance is the kind of
love Jesus speaks of when he taught to love thy
neighbor; that Buddha meant when he said that the enemy,
adversary or competitor can be one’s greatest teacher,
an adage oft-quoted by the Dalai Lama.
If we cannot love and accept ourselves, how can we
love and accept others? Carl Jung said: “The most
terrifying thing in the world is to accept oneself
totally.” What are we afraid of?
© Copyright 2004 Lama Surya Das. All Rights Reserved.
Lama Surya Das is one of the foremost Western
Buddhist meditation teachers and scholars, one of the
main interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, and a
leading spokesperson for the emerging American Buddhism.
The Dalai Lama calls him "The Western Lama".
Surya Das has been featured in
numerous publications and major media, including ABC,
CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, New
York Post, Long Island Newsday, San Francisco Chronicle,
Los Angeles Times, the Jewish free Press, New Age
Journal, Tricycle Magazine, Yoga Journal, and has been
the subject of a seven minute magazine story on CNN. One
segment of the ABC-TV sitcom Dharma & Greg was based
on his life (Leonard's Return).
Surya has spent thirty five
years studying Zen, vipassana, yoga, and Tibetan
Buddhism with the great masters of Asia, including the
Dalai Lama's own teachers, and has twice completed the
traditional three year meditation retreat at his
teacher's Tibetan monastery. He is an authorized lama
(priest and spiritual master teacher) in the Nyingmapa
School of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the founder of the
Dzogchen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its
branch centers in New York City, New Jersey, California,
Portland, and Texas. Founder of the Western Buddhist
Teachers Network with the Dalai Lama, he is also active
in interfaith dialogue and social activism and regularly
organizes its international Buddhist Teachers
Surya Das is a sought after
speaker, and teaches, lectures, and conducts retreats
around the world. Lama Surya Das is a published poet,
translator, and chantmaster (see Chants to Awaken the
Buddhist Heart CD, with Stephen Halpern). He is the
author of six books, including "Awakening the
Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World,
"Awakening the Buddhist Heart: Integrating Love,
Meaning and Connection into Every Part of Your
Life," and "Awakening to the Sacred, the three
books that comprise his bestselling Awakening Trilogy,
the first trilogy of Buddhism for the West. His newest
book is "Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be:
Lessons on Change, Loss and Spiritual
Transformation" (August 2003).
Surya Das is a Contributing
Editor to Body and Soul magazine, writes regularly for
Tricyle and other magazines, and is a founder and board
member of many Buddhist monasteries, centers and
charitable projects in refugee camps in Asia. He writes
a regular Ask The Lama column online at Beliefnet.com.
His website is http:www.surya.org
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