Equanimity and Letting Go
Many years ago, while working with a Buddhist spiritual director, I learned a lesson about letting go. Her son had committed suicide. When I saw her shortly afterwards, she appeared as calm and self-contained as ever. I asked how she managed to do that when her son had just died. She explained that he had struggled with depression and suicidal ideation for a long time. Sometimes, no matter what we do, people die from their diseases. It is part of life.
Her main strategy for coping, however, was not so much to be philosophical about our existence, but to focus on living in the present moment. If we do not dwell in the past or the future, we find that most of the time, all is well. I am not saying she never broke down and wept. Of course she did. But her years of spiritual practice enabled her to continue living her own life, step by step and day by day.
I have found her teaching useful. The morning my mother died, for instance, I was scheduled to meet, for the first time, with the worship committee at the church where I would be filling in as they searched for a new minister.
Letting Go of My Mother
When I learned of her death, I was walking the dog. It was summer. The sun had risen, the sky was wide in its blueness, a chorus of birds sang. I had my cell phone with me so I could call my brother to figure out when he would come to Portland to see our mother for the last time. Having made those arrangements, I called the In another column, I wrotecaregiver at my mother’s foster home to let her know. As we were talking, my mother slipped away.
I started crying. Though I had spent time with her the day before, singing to her and saying good-bye, I felt sad to have been so far from her at this moment. But I had practical matters to deal with. First, I had to tell my brother. I also wanted to go to the foster home so I could say good-bye to my mother’s body. Then, I decided, I would keep my appointment with the church committee.
Holding Our Children
My spiritual director had taught me well. For years, I have focused my mind on my breath, on my footsteps, on the feel of vegetables in my hand as I slice them, and it seems that after the loss of my mother, my discipline supported me. Or maybe I was just in shock. Regardless, it was not terribly difficult for me to focus on the other people seated around the table in that church. Maybe because this was my mother. We expect our mothers to die at some point, and she was 90 years old. Surely at that age she should be allowed to let go of life.
Equanimity was harder to come by when, as I wrote about in another column, my youngest son came close to death. He’d been beaten up and needed emergency surgery for a dangerous subdural hematoma. While my husband and I waited, surrendering all our parental control to the surgeon, hoping he could work some magic on our son’s brain, I repeated over and over in my mind, “Present moment; wonderful moment.”  It’s a phrase Thich Nhat Hanh suggested, and I have found it useful when I am suffering. Whether my pain is emotional or physical, the words remind me that on some level, all is well.
When my son’s life hung in the balance, these words helped me maintain a kind of calm, but I would not have been much use planning worship services.
Learning to Walk
It’s not only death, however, that brings us face-to-face with our need to let go. In so many ways, and so many situations, we try to control others and to keep them safe.
I once had a client whose father kept relapsing on heroin and cocaine. Their relationship was complicated. When she’d been young, he had sober periods. At those times, he was loving and tender. His drug use was more frequent than his sobriety, however, so mostly, my client suffered at his hands.
As a young adult, she longed for the father she thought he could be and should be. It broke her heart to see him abusing himself with his drug use. Yet no matter how much she berated him, cajoled him, or made deals with him, he didn’t stop. Only when she let go of her expectation that he be the father she longed for, was she able to let him to be the person he was. She learned to let him fail. Ironically, once she stopped trying to force him to his feet, he learned how to walk on his own.
We all need to learn to walk, or journey in some way, on our own. If we can’t let go, our loved ones will find it that much harder to make their way.
Maybe we can learn that lesson from God. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor points out that the “God of Moses” is not the kindly, grandfatherly type. He doesn’t protect us from harm when we take risks.  Even during those sacred and soul-shattering moments that come when we are at the edge, beset by anxiety and hopelessness, God appears not as a shining light, but as a dark and ominous cloud.
Freedom in Transformation
Rachel Naomi Remen, in My Grandfather’s Blessings, writes about the importance of freedom by sharing a story of when God appeared as a cloud to the Hebrew people. Her grandfather told her the story. During the forty years the Israelites wandered through the desert, God showed himself as a pillar of cloud during the day and at night as a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21-22). That God should show Himself to the people at all was unusual. Rachel wanted to know why He had done that.
Her grandfather didn’t really know, but he thought it was because “the struggle toward freedom is too important for God to leave to others.”  He explained that unless we are free, we cannot fulfill God’s purpose for us in the world. If we are trapped, whether because we think ourselves unworthy, or we are greedy, or we feel entitled, or we can’t let go of our resentments, or because we cling to any of the myriad things we do and use and say to make us think we’re safe, if we are enslaved by anything, we can’t reflect our essential goodness.
Letting Go of Fear of the Unknown
But when we flee slavery, we don’t necessarily move toward freedom. “The choice is never between slavery and freedom,” Rachel’s grandfather explained. “[W]e must always choose between slavery and the unknown.” 
That’s what makes those mystical experiences Taylor is talking about so frightening. When we “climb the mountain and enter the dark cloud of the divine,” she writes, God offers us “no seat belts or other safety features.”  Just because we flee the slavery of our hearts and minds and culture doesn’t mean we will find freedom. We might not even survive the experience. There are no guarantees.
In an effort to be safe, we can stay in Egypt, stay on the foothills. We can forgo the desert and the mountain. We will even be able to call such living a life. Yet it is not much of one. Such a life doesn’t encourage the blossoming of the spirit or the soul-shattering magnificence of a terrifying holiness. Unless we face God, uncertainty, the unknown, or the truth of how incredibly wonderful and strong and beautiful we are, we will not be able to reflect the full goodness that lies at the core of who we are.
Letting Go of Everything We Care About
To avoid a life of sullen mediocrity, we must learn to let go. Although it can be terrifying to surrender our illusion that we can control the future, it can also be sacred and joyful.
Joseph Campbell, in his book Reflections on the Art of Living, describes a ritual he took part in that changed his relationship to that which he loved. It allowed him to cherish those things more, while at the same time, clinging to them less.
To prepare for the ritual, the participants were told to think of seven things that were so important to them, they couldn’t imagine not having them in their lives. Then they were to choose seven objects to represent those things. The day of the ritual, they were brought to the entrance of a cave where they had to surrender one of their seven symbols. Once inside, they were met along the path by individuals who, five more times, took one of their beloved things. When they came to the doorway out of this underworld cavern, they had to release the last and final object they held, the thing they valued more than anything else.
Freedom in Letting Go
It may seem that such a contrived experience would have little impact, but Campbell says it was powerful for all who took part. Only “[o]ne damned fool” refused to surrender any of his objects. Instead, when asked to relinquish something, the man scooped up a pebble and handed that over. Because of his clinging, he never experienced the sense of joy Campbell felt in the letting go. Nor did he discover what he truly cared about. Instead of realizing that he could stand and live and breathe in spite of losing everything he thought he needed, that man gave up the chance to be free. 
If we refuse to let go of what we hold dear, what will we sacrifice instead? Our integrity, our values, our sanity, our friendships, other people’s children?
Letting Our Children Be Who They Are
Sometimes what we must surrender is not a person or place or possession, but an idea, a dream, an assumption about someone we love. When my son was fifteen, about a year after his head injury, I received a call from the mother of one of his friends that shattered my understanding of who my child was, thereby shattering my sense of self as his mother. I learned that my son had robbed her son.
At first, I thought there must be some mistake. Surely there was some other explanation?
But I managed to let go of my assumption about who my son was and what choices he would make. That deepened my grief over the situation, but it also allowed me to move forward so I could support the other mother, support my son, and find support for myself.
The day after that distressing phone call, I attended my first Al-Anon meeting. That helped a lot. Over time, I learned to allow my son to be who he was, not who I thought he should be. I found that, although he had done something that went against all the values his father and I had tried to teach him, he was still the young man who spent hours in the hospital with a friend whose baby was sick and who invited a different friend to stay at our house when the boy’s parents kicked him out of their home. The robbery did not make him all bad.
As Parents, We Teach and We Learn
Through Al-Anon, I came to accept that my son had his own higher power, and that it wasn’t me. My task was to love him, hold him accountable when possible, and then trust in the rightness of life. Rather than focusing all my attention on trying to change him, I looked at who I was and how I needed to grow. In the process, I surrendered some of my naive ideas about how the world worked, about crime and justice, and about my own privilege and entitlement. I had so much to learn.
Over the next eight years, my son gave me many opportunities to learn such lessons. Even today, both of my children, my husband, my coworkers, and my friends, all provide me with opportunities to let go. Not that I surrender perfectly. I can be pretty awkward about it. Now and then, I refuse to surrender at all. But I keep starting from where I am and doing my best to move forward.
Through the metaphor of a father cradling his daughter’s head while she floats on her back on the water, Philip Booth’s poem, “First Lesson,” explores how we parents hold and teach, and then let go, of our children. In the poem, a father teaches his daughter to relax and be held, to spread her arms wide, and take in the world’s beauty. When he removes his hand, the girl discovers she can float on her own.
Finding the Balance
As the narrator points out, when life is difficult, when beauty is tattered and torn, and the girl is exhausted, his lesson might stay with her. She might realize she can turn onto their back “and survive.” If she can remember how to float, to let go, to allow the sea to carry her, if she can find a faith or a hope or a purpose that can embrace her, she will be all right.
If we parents are fortunate and we have time and circumstance, and if our own confusion or brokenness does not get in our way, we will carefully cradle our children’s heads when they are young, then gradually slip our fingers free as they learn to float, perhaps even to swim and sail. If we are fortunate, we will provide them with opportunities to fail and break hearts and be themselves broken without letting them drown. Or having to watch them drown, for sometimes nothing we do can will save them. Sometimes luck alone does that.
Eventually all of us must live our own lives. Even those who make good choices may find that storms sweep them onto the beach, bloodied and wasted. How frightening it can be to watch our children thrash toward shore, or get stung by manta rays, or lose their way and swim out into the depths of the sea. At such times, what are we parents to do? Like the God of Exodus, can we light the way, move as a pillar of cloud through the desert? Perhaps we can watch and pray and love them deeply and quietly. Surely we have part to play in their lives, no matter how old they are.
Letting Go of Our Fear of Suffering
Yet it is so easy to overstep, and who am I to say my child should never experience trauma and hardship and the pain of having wounded someone else? Even if my child’s living brings him grief, and even if it breaks my heart, I must let him live his way. The God of Moses lets us be who we are. What makes me think I know better than He?
Indeed, letting go can be a kind of trust. I trust my son to be the person he is meant to be. When we give our children freedom to make their mistakes, we let them know we believe in them, that we believe they are capable of success, as well as failure. We believe they can learn from what they’ve done and grow.
Of course, suffering does not always shape us into something valuable. Our children do not always learn the lessons we wish they would. How we are forged by our painful experiences is partly up to us. Yet we need a certain amount of hardship, of wandering through the desert and climbing mountains, for us to develop a depth of purpose, wisdom, beauty, peace, and tenderness.
The Authority of Those Who Can Let Go
In an essay about recovery, Richard Rohr notes that “people who have lost, let go, and are re-found on a new level,” possess an authority not found in those who haven’t had to enter that empty place, who haven’t fallen, who haven’t slipped beneath the water in a storm.  If our lives are only cheerful and comfortable, we will have no way to empathize with those who struggle. Is this really what we want for our children?
So we need to let go. We need to let go of our children, of our control over them. We need to surrender our fear of suffering, of living, of God, and of that terrible, dark holiness which is also a deep and sacred unknown. With practice, we might become more graceful in our letting go, as was my spiritual director. But the risk of devastation is always there, no matter how philosophical or mindful we become. We never completely finish learning to let go, at least not until we ourselves die, for that is when we will relinquish everything. Until that time, we can choose to practice with the smaller things that come our way.
In faith and fondness,
- The phrase comes from this poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, found in his book Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living. It is meant to be used during meditation:
- Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.
- Breathing in, I calm my body.
- Taylor, Barbara Brown, Learning to Walk in the Dark, New York: HarperCollins, 2014.
- Remen, Rachel Naomi, My Grandfather’s Blessing: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging, New York: Riverhead Books, 2000, 372.
- Ibid 373.
- Taylor 58.
- Campbell, Joseph, “Reflections on the Art of Living,” God in All Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Spiritual Writing, ed. Lucinda Vardey, New York: Vintage, 1995, 214-215.
- Rohr, Richard, “Step 12: Recovery,” Constant Contact, December 4, 2015 http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation–Step-12–Recovery.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=1gjxzuLU6w4, accessed 5/8/18.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens