In some ways there’s no difficulty in knowing when it’s time to let go: we let go when we get fed up of holding on! Or sometimes the wyrd will get ‘fed up’ on our behalf, and dump us in some place where we have no choice but to trust – we’ve all had experience of that. Either way, at some point – usually quite suddenly – we find ourselves facing the reality that the old way of working on the world, the ordinary, ‘normal’ way of control, of fear, of power-over and power-under, just doesn’t work any more. Or rather we recognise that it never did work: that sense of control, of power, was never more than an illusion. It’s not a very comfortable realisation, but it is a realistic one! Time for a change… time to let go, and start again a different way.
We can’t make change happen: it happens in its own way, and in its own time, weaving through on the threads of wyrd. It’s not in our control – it never has been. But we can direct the process. Even though there’s always a twist, we always have a choice: it’s up to us to choose which way we want to go.
It may seem that change happens because we do something new, but often that’s only because we’ve made space for it by letting go of something old. There has to be space for the new to enter into our lives, to unfold itself in the space that’s created. Part of the preparation for change consists of extending some kind of invitation: we need not only to allow change but welcome it. That’s not always easy: one reason why we so often try to fill every possible gap in our lives with activity or habit is because we’re afraid of change – yet sometimes the wyrd will make space for us anyway, whether we like it or not…
Part of the fear of change is that since there’s always a twist, we can never be certain what it is that we’re inviting. What if we’re only making room for something worse? “Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t” – especially if the new ‘devil’ seems to be a void, a yawning chasm of nothingness.
Facing that fear does take true courage: but fears can take up a lot of space that could be filled with other, better, things. Like laughter, for example; or joy.
By letting go of fear – by trusting – we create space for what we choose to be in our lives. The catch is that we have to let go completely, let go unconditionally, without attachment to any outcome. If I’m only willing to let go when I’m certain that my wishes will be fulfilled, I’m not actually letting go: all I’ve done is find a different way of controlling – the same old illusion in a different guise.
So we have to take the risk, have the courage. And trust. Trust to make that jump into the unknown…
This business of letting go of attachment is like the silliness barrier all over again. From the other side it seems easy: “Why don’t you just jump?” But it doesn’t feel like that: the fear is real…
About the only thing that makes it easier is recognising that the other way – the way of control, of slavery to an endless stream of wants – just doesn’t work. Like the Red Queen in Carroll’s ‘Alice’, it leaves us running ever faster and faster, just to stand still. “The more you want, the less you get” – or rather, the more we end up drowning in a sea of things, none of which actually give us what we need.
But first we have to make space to see this: which isn’t easy, because we’re usually very careful not to make space to see it! Recognising what’s actually going on would break the whole illusion: and none of us like our illusions shattered. So the first step is to make the choice, create the space: and watch what comes up…
|The classic tool for creating space is meditation: sit quietly for a few minutes in a quiet space; relax; watch the breathing go in and out, in and out; relinquish control, and watch the thoughts go by.
That’s the principle, anyway: the practice isn’t quite so easy! The habit of filling every scrap of space is so dominant – because of that fear of change – that thoughts and images come crowding in the moment there’s a gap. “Breathe in… breathe out… breathe in… breathe out… oh bother, I forgot to put the cat out… no, he can wait… I wonder whether George will wait for me tomorrow… Damn! Start again: breathe in… breathe out… breathe in… that film was good… must see it again sometime… Damn! I keep losing track!” – at which point you’ll be in anything but a relaxed meditative state!
The trick is to not worry about the way thoughts come crowding in: they do. For everyone. So when your mind drifts off from the task of creating space, bring it back gently: without hurry, without pressure, without blame. It does get easier with practice: but in the meantime it’s useful to look at the fears, the habits, the effort to control even this. You can’t fight control with control – so relax, don’t try, just let go, let go…
It’s a kind of spring-cleaning of the mind: and it’s often surprising what comes up. The sheer amount of stuff in there…! The same is true with all those things I own: this house-full of stuff I rarely use. But I cling on to it… it’s mine. Partly because of memories I don’t want to lose; partly because I use it to define ‘I’, a substitute for knowing ‘I’… the end-result, though, is that there’s little or no space for anything new – and in a way, very little room for me.
|In one form of a visualisation, we get into the same meditative state, quietly watching the thoughts go by: and then deliberately fill the space with an image or a question, some issue on which we want to meditate. To an extent, this is what we’ve been doing with affirmations: “they give the old toothless dog in my mind something to gnaw on”, as one friend put it. So perhaps reflect for a while on your experience of “the more you want, the less you get”: hold that paradox in your mind. What ideas, images, memories come up about that? Watch them, watch them as they go by…|
We get stuck in the loop of ‘the more you want, the less you get’ because, as we saw earlier, the feeling of ‘wanting more’ usually comes from a need which is being responded to inappropriately. A want, you’ll remember, is the outward expression of an inner need. We misinterpret the meaning of the want, interpreting it literally rather than as metaphor; what the need gets from us isn’t what it needs; so it repeats the want, in the hope that we’ll get it right this time. But if we don’t stop to listen – if we don’t create the space in which to listen – we’ll just repeat the loop: “same again, please!”
In time, we get attached to that way of doing things: we have to do it this way, we must have that toy, that food, that job, that car, that person as prospective partner. If we don’t get it (or them), we’re stuck. To get out of the stuckness, we have to let go: we have to release the ‘attachment’.
This is where there’s usually a lot of discussion about ‘non-attachment’ to things, to people, to expectations. True non-attachment is an idealised state in which we let go completely, release our fears, trust entirely to the fates or the wyrd. A state of enlightenment…
Even in the classic descriptions it’s recognised that it’s anything but easy to reach that state. But it’s made even harder by the way non-attachment is usually described.
Non-attachment does indeed mean letting go. But it’s not the same as ‘detachment’: in letting go, we don’t just drop everything and walk away. It’s not necessary, or even advisable – quite apart from being an absolutely terrifying concept for most of us! Perhaps a better way to understand it is to recognise that non-attachment is the same as ‘non-detachment’: neither attachment nor detachment.
It’s a bit like looking-without-looking, or trying-without-trying – that state of ‘doing no-thing’ which we need in order to see a dim star at night. We don’t just let go: we still have choices – even though there’s always a twist. What we let go of is not the choice, but the fear: make a choice, and then trust that the wyrd will bring us what we need.
|We’re back to another of those childlike states – a state of optimistic trust. Imagine, like a child: we make a wish, and then see what the fairies bring us. But do it without controlling, without demanding it be a particular way or form – let it be a surprise, a happy childlike surprise. Play with it; play with the twists of the wyrd – and let go.
For example, modify the image that we meditated on above: give the old toothless dog something different to gnaw on. Make a wish: think of something you’d really like to happen, something you would choose to have happen. Build a clear image of it in your mind. In your mind, write down the wish on a piece of card. And imagine a pink balloon, a light helium-filled balloon, tugging gently on its string. Tie the wish-card, that wish you’d dearly like to happen, to the string of the balloon. And let go, let go; watch it lift up into the sky, and drift away on the threads of wyrd.
Don’t just forget the balloon, though: remind yourself of it each day. Where is it? Where has it landed? Who’s read your message? How is it being acted on? Yet still let go…
You’ve let go: you’re non-attached to the wish. You’re also non-detached from it: it still has meaning, importance for you. Trust that somehow, in some way, there will be a response.
And watch how, over time, the wyrd responds to the wish.
Try it. Watch what happens!
It’s important to recognise that the choices are always ours: without that, we lapse back into that irresponsible ‘laziness’ mode, in which we rely on panic and fear about ‘external’ events to get us going again.
And it’s important too to let go of how or when the wyrd should respond. It works in its own way, in its own time: trying to control it, getting attached to some abstract idea of perfection, just makes things worse in the long run. So let go, let go: neither attached, nor detached, but non-attached, non-detached, accepting it as it is.
Accepting things as they are is not easy. It never is. We all want instant change, instant perfection, even instant enlightenment. And strangely enough, we don’t get it… except that sometimes, even stranger, when we give up we find we’re already there. Odd. Weird, in fact…
We’ve all been taught that people and things ‘ought to’ be perfect, work perfectly, according to some abstract ideal of perfection: the ‘Laws of Nature’, the ‘Will of God’ – or the ideology of the Party, perhaps. These ideals, however, are always abstract, and arbitrarily exclude the bits we don’t like: uncertainty, unpredictability, or the aspects of our own nature that we’d prefer to forget. But reality, the web of wyrd, is neither arbitrary or abstract: it simply is, including everything, whether we like it or not. If we don’t accept reality for what it is, and how it is – including those bits we don’t like – sooner or later we’ll find ourselves in trouble. The demand for perfection can be a problem.
In many ways that demand is actually another form of power-under. We’re required to reach and maintain some arbitrary state of perfection: if we fail to do so, we must classify ourselves as ‘failures’. But it is, by its nature, an impossible task: if we accept the demand, we lose before we even start. It’s valuable to aim for some kind of perfection; but the demand to be perfect is best understood as yet another way to trap us into disempowering ourselves for the dubious benefit of others.
|Perfection is a cruel all-or-nothing game: whatever we do, we’re failures. By striving for the arbitrary perfection, we push the perfection of ourselves away. We push even living away – that sad cry of “If I’m so wonderful, why am I still lonely?”
There’s a simple test that can help us to let go: if someone demands that you be perfect, are they themselves perfect in that sense? (A hint: in every case you’ll find they aren’t…) Are they themselves truly striving for that perfection – or are they only demanding that you do so? If it’s the latter, it may be that they’re only playing the power-under game, trying to dump their own fears on you: if so, let it be their problem rather than yours…
And in either case, look again at what you’re being asked to do. Is it what you want, is it what you choose? Give it to the ‘old toothless dog’ to work on for a while. What answers, what images, come up?
The quest for perfection is just that: a quest. It’s a process, not a state; becoming, not being. The perfection is in the maintaining of the aim towards it; but none of us – none of us – ever achieve it. ‘Nobody’s perffect’: so don’t worry about it. Just be. Find more who you are, what you choose: that, in itself, is perfection.
The quest for perfection is perhaps best understood as a dance of awareness. It comes and goes – make space for it, allow it to come and go. And when it goes, we use some kind of discipline or system – that arbitrary description of perfection, of ‘how it works’, of ‘how it ought to be’ – to remind us of our aim. If necessary, pretend! “If you can’t fix it, fake it”, to show us what we’re aiming for, to show us how it could be – that’s what we’re doing with affirmations, for example. But’s important to remember that we are only faking it… it’s only part of the process, not the end in itself!
We never do reach perfection: it’s a goal, an aim, rather than an achievable target. We improve by allowing things – and ourselves – to ‘not-work’, to work in unexpected ways. When things don’t go according to expectation, that doesn’t necessarily mean that anything’s wrong: it may just be that the wyrd is taking a different – and probably better – route to our intended aim. We don’t know. And holding on to ‘knowing’, to certainty, is another form of control that we need to learn to release.
Let go of knowing
Most of us have a strong need to know that things are working – mainly because it’s so hard to trust that they are. So it’s hard to let go: but notice, slowly, how often some ‘bit of good luck’ turns out to lead nowhere, and how often some apparent disaster turns out to be ‘a blessing in disguise’.
|A long time ago, at the far edge of a village far away, lived an old woman and her young son. They were poor: her only possession of value a beautiful horse. “Surely you’d be better off if you sold it?” said the villagers. But her only reply was “Maybe yes; maybe no…”
One day the horse was gone. “It must have been stolen”, said the villagers, “You’re crazy, old woman – you should have sold it while you had the chance.” Yet her reply was the same: “Maybe yes; maybe no…”
But a week later, the horse was back – and it had brought a dozen wild horses with it, back to the woman’s paddock. “What amazing good fortune!”, said the villagers. And again the woman’s reply was “Maybe yes; maybe no…”
Her son began training the wild horses. One of them threw him: he landed badly and broke his leg. “He’ll be crippled for months, and he’s your only help”, said the villagers. “What bad luck!” But once more the old woman replied “Maybe yes; maybe no…”
The very next day, the villagers were in despair: an army recruiting party had passed through, conscripting all young men for service in the latest of the king’s incessant and bloody wars. Only the old woman’s son was spared, because of his broken leg. “We’ll never see our sons again!” cried the villagers. “How much more fortunate than us you are, old woman!” And for a change, her reply was slightly different: “Maybe yes; maybe no… I do not know; do you? Does anyone? It does not help to judge too soon: it always changes. As time passes, we will know: but until then, maybe yes, maybe no…”
Over the next few days, try watching events like that old woman. Watch your judgements, your assumptions, your expectations about what’s happening: and, gently, let go. Compare later the expectation with what actually happened: notice the difference! So let go, let go: “maybe yes; maybe no…”
In hindsight we can see a pattern; but at the time we simply don’t know. There’s no way we can know. So rather than worrying over whether each little incident is a ‘forwards’ or ‘backwards’ step, it’s more useful to pay attention to the overall flow, the overall sense of the direction of events. And note the choices that we have in that – maintaining our own aim towards a better life.
Remember too that if we only allow things to work in expected ways, we’re limiting our chances of their working. But as far as the culture we live in is concerned, things only work in expected ways: we’re supposed to interact with each other only through what we might call ‘double-entry life-keeping’, treating everything in life as if it was part of double-entry book-keeping.
If give something to you, I feel that you owe me the same in return: you must at some time repay me in exactly the same way and kind – “not a penny more, not a penny less”. And we do this not just with money, but with emotions and almost everything else. It’s a crude way to make things seem fair while at the same time avoiding the need to learn who or what or when to trust. We expect our ‘just reward’ – or perhaps our ‘just punishment’ – in a strict book-keeping of credits and debits. But reality, once again, simply doesn’t work that way: life is far more weird than that.
|For most of my life I indulged in a habit of ‘trying to buy being liked’: I would give, and give, and give, in the hope that this would somehow make people like me. After all, I’d given things to them: so now they owe me a favour in return – that’s fair, isn’t it? It took many years of emotional bruises – “why is everything so damned unfair!” – for me to recognise that reality doesn’t quite work that way…
Look at some of your own patterns, your own habits, your own expectations of fairness: how much do you demand a perfect ‘double-entry life-keeping’ from life? How much do you expect it of others?
I give, you take – but you don’t give me anything in return. Hey! That’s damned unfair! That’s how it seems – we certainly complain about it enough…
Yet even at a cursory glance, life isn’t ‘fair’ in that simplistic way. With a better understanding, though, we can see that there is a kind of feedback, a kind of balancing of the books: but one in which, as we’d now expect, there’s always a twist. It does all seem to loop round: but often not from the direction we’d expect, or in a form that we’d always recognise. It may well come back from someone else entirely – and often not until we actually need it. It’s up to us to see it as such – and act on it.
|A while back, a colleague and I were presented with a professional bill that was far higher than we’d expected. It was wrong, unfair: “We’re not going to pay that!” But there was a sense of a comment on the wyrd, a kind of message that said “Don’t argue about this one – just do it”. So we did. Just after coming back from the mailbox, after mailing the cheque, the phone rang. An unexpected job. For exactly the same amount as the bill…
Weird… But sometimes this happens so often, and seems so ordinary, that I can only comment “Ah! Normal Rules!” when it happens again…
What experiences have you had like that – the weavings of the wyrd? How did you recognise them? How do you know when to trust them? And do they seem extraordinary, or ordinary – or just plain weird?
The key issue is trust, combined with a kind of inner message from the wyrd – which is always there, if only I’d care to listen. But it’s not easy to listen, because I’m still usually expecting things to be fair, to follow the crude simplistic rules of ‘double-entry life-keeping’. If I’m not listening, I’m only allowing things to work in expected ways – which means they often can’t work at all.
What it comes down to is that to connect with the wyrd we have to disconnect from this culture’s notions of ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’, and instead re-learn how to trust: who, what and when. Instead of giving away virtually at random – which is what I’d been doing in the buying-being-liked mode – I have to learn to sense when it’s appropriate to give, and when not to. When I think back, I can see that many of those people that I gave and gave to, and later blamed as being unfair, I actually can’t blame at all: I was giving the wrong thing, in the wrong way, to the wrong people. Trying to control them, in fact: trying to trap them into giving to me – which could hardly be called trust… In that sense, they weren’t ‘doing it to me’: they just took what I gave them, and walked away – often with some confusion and surprise, as I remember now. But under the circumstances, that was a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do!
I can’t blame others for my own unwillingness to set ‘boundaries’ – my own limits on what I’m willing to give, and how and what I’m willing to receive. That’s up to me: I have to learn how to trust myself, my own inner knowing, as well as that of others. As we learn to trust, and as we learn to get the balance right, we connect with the wyrd: and slowly, steadily, strangely, things begin to work in unexpected ways as well as only in expected ones. But if we don’t – if we try to control, or hide in the crude fair/unfair of ‘double-entry life-keeping’ – the end-result is always some kind of pain, some kind of suffering. About which, of course, we then complain…!
An end to suffering
Pain is something else we try to control – or, more to the point, try to lock out of our lives. We don’t want it! Though we’d more often put it in a more positive-looking light, and say “I want to always be happy”; but in fact it comes down to the same thing. We don’t like to face it, either in ourselves, or in others: it just hurts too much. Yet suffering of various kinds and at various levels is a real part of life: and if we try to avoid it or ignore it, eventually the wyrd will find a way to make us face it. We have a choice; but there’s always a twist…
We’d like to put a nice, solid, permanent boundary between ourselves and pain of any kind, emotional, physical or whatever. A lot of New Age material claims to do that for us, which unfortunately is downright dishonest. For example, the obsession with ‘positive thinking’ – “I only accept positive things in my life”, one woman said to me recently – can easily become new form of controlling, a new way to avoid reality. And while the concept of boundaries is important (as we’ll see later), it’s now routinely abused as a new way of blaming, to dump fears on other people – “how dare you overstep my boundaries!”. The search for enlightenment too often degenerates into a new style of ‘endarkenment’ (Charles Tart’s delightful term!); it’s often forgotten that the closer we get to ‘the Light’, the larger the shadow grows…
The ‘old’ age has left us with problems enough, though. Most traditions regard an acceptance of a certain amount of suffering as a necessary reality – “you have to go through suffering to become more whole”. And that’s probably true: but some traditions – especially Christian or Buddhist – go to an extreme, presenting suffering as a virtue. To be in pain is to be considered more worthy of God, or closer to Buddha… Even if we disregard the cynical power-politics that’s often been behind it, this still often leaves us with that infamous holier-than-thou syndrome – an absurd aggrandisement of suffering for its own sake.
|There’s an interesting story on this in Richard Bach’s book “Illusions”. The mechanic, the ‘reluctant messiah’ in the story, asks his audience if they would do anything, anything, that God commanded. “Of course! Of course!” is the reply. For example, if God asked them to suffer great pain, excruciating torture, to prove their faith, would they do it? “Yes!”, reply the people, “yes! YES!” But what, asks the mechanic, if God’s commandment was that they should be joyful, happy, free: what then? And there is utter silence….
A question: if ‘God’s commandment’ to you was that “you should be joyful, happy, free” – what would you do? And how hard would it be to believe that this really was ‘God’s commandment’?
A clue to what’s actually going on comes from what one writer described as “that special attention which is the prerogative of the miserable”. If – as children – we’re upset, or hurt, or in pain, we get more attention. Attention isn’t quite as good as love, which is what we really want: but it’ll do. So we can ‘buy’ attention – so the thinking goes – if we’re in pain: and if necessary we’ll create the pain ourselves, in order to get the attention we crave. It’s another variant on the game of trying to buy being liked: another form of ‘double-entry life-keeping’. It doesn’t work: but we think it should. It ought to. And if people won’t give us the attention that’s our ‘just reward’ for being miserable, perhaps our suffering will convince God that we ought to be given some kind of special attention – in the next life if not the present one…
A more realistic view is that suffering is simply part of reality. It is. It’s often also the only thing which will break our complacency, to get us to feel once more. And only by reaching the depths can we reach the heights: they’re inextricably interlinked.
|A common myth about great art is that it comes only from great anguish, from tortured emotions or deep suffering. It’s more accurate to say that it comes from an intensity of emotion – for which suffering can be a key that opens the door. It’s not the only one!
We can reach the same intensity with other emotions: anger, excitement, laughter and, especially, love – other keys to the same door. A door that opens onto true creativity, and a knowledge that we’re alive.
It doesn’t have to be suffering! Cast back your mind onto some memories – feel the aliveness that comes when we let go, and let our emotions be what they are.
Without compassion – a shared understanding of emotion – it’s hard to reach much of an understanding of life: especially other people’s understanding of life. Art, and the spiritual paths, are deeply concerned with understanding, and with compassion. We don’t have to experience pain and suffering in order to have compassion – we just have to find some way to reach that compassion. It’s a fact, though, that most of us seem to learn only through personal experience… the trick would seem to be to keep the experience down to manageable proportions!
One of the classic New Age mistakes is to forget that a small amount of pain can relieve a great deal of hidden pain. Much of our suffering has its roots in old fears or old wants, still crying for attention in the background. Facing those issues with tools such as affirmations brings those old issues right back up to the surface, and often they hurt – but only for a short while. Then we finally let them go, releasing them like that imaginary pink balloon – followed by a deep, deep sense of relief… And while it may not seem so at the time, the pain is only transitory: it does help to remember that.
And within the wyrd, certain kinds of pain can twist into totally different emotions: heavy exercise may seem like the tortures of Hell, for example, but the exhilaration afterward makes it all worthwhile! But it takes courage to accept it, and to trust that the pain will pass, and will take us where we need to go.
Refusing to accept any pain can leave us in an empty search for an ever-elusive ‘happiness’. But when we take the risk, and trust – when we include everything, and allow all the emotions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, to be as they are – we find that we’ve also let go of suffering. And with that we reach a quite different state, far deeper than happiness. At the far side of suffering, when we allow ourselves to include everything, what we discover is joy. And that’s when life really does become fun!