The Letting Go
“Any kind of expectation creates a problem. We should accept, but not expect. Whatever comes, accept it. Whatever goes, accept it. The immediate benefit is that your mind is always peaceful.” — Swami Satchidananda
In the west, many spiritual seekers hit against a roadblock when they consider the term “attachment”. Teachers gently reminding us that attachment is a feeling more than it is a physical state, yet we begin our studies with the surface question: Do I have to give up all my stuff to attain mental peace?
It’s never a bad idea to consider the relationship you have with your material possessions. You will notice, however, that their fast elimination is not the full answer. If a person loses everything — say in the instance of a fire — they do not often continue their life as a religious seeker who renounces possessions. Most often they are concerned with replacing the things they have lost, especially if they have a family. If merely giving up your possessions was the answer, then those beset by total loss would feel nothing but deep peace.
When I began my own questioning, I was constantly baffled by the incongruities between the physical, material, apparent reality of life on this planet, and the unattached free soul that I supposedly was within and without all of it. It makes sense that when you have less possessions you have more freedom to think about God. But, with a Sikhlike pragmatism, I considered this: if total consciousness is possible under any circumstance, at any time, simply by concentrating on God and loving God, then what measure of hardship should a man put himself through simply to be focused at that point?
(My religious studies have always been world-motivated. I consider it my primary duty to find out how to lighten the hardship of the world in this yuga. Therefore, when I am searching for answers, I try to find the answers that have broad applications — legitimate spiritual panaceas, if you will.)
In response, I found this lovely talk by Swami Satchidananda, titled “How to be Happy Always”, as well as its sister talk, “Living Selflessly”. In them, he does a beautiful job of explaining attachment through its more recognizable face: expectation. Instead of focusing on attachment to possessions, he reminds us of how the “expectation” of happiness is a poorly founded and infrequently-rewarded sentiment. By considering my expectations, I am able to see, more clearly, my attachments.
To illustrate this point as it was illustrated to me, I will use the example of the phrase “if only I had”. Most people use this phrase to indicate the impediments to their happiness. My “if I only” list mainly has to do with steadiness: if I only had a place to live for a while, if I only had a kitchen I could use. A friend I know populates that list with music equipment. If we don’t do it with material things, we use it as an excuse to bring ourselves down: if only I had a better figure, if only I had more time with my kids, if only I had finished college.
In my case, expectation was a way of life. As a child, I was taught that people got things either by being lucky, or by cheating the odds. Hard work and goal-setting were not mentioned. I spent most of my time, then, replacing constructive action with daydreaming. In my toxic childhood, daydreaming was the norm — it fully bested listening to my parents fight, and was a lot more fun than dealing with reality. Reality was homework assignments and my mother’s drinking and us being poor. Daydreaming was everything I would do when I was older, and how.
Then, I got older. Instead of attempting the basic life skills of acquiring housing and keeping a job, I bounced from job to job and stayed, most often, with my parents. When I wasn’t with Mom (who never moved, and so had great storage) or Dad (my safety net through eight years of Arizona crises) I lived with boys I was dating and, one adventurous set of months, with my best friend. Throughout it all I was baffled by how I could never grasp the fundamentals of adult existence. I wasn’t lazy, but I hated to work. I had several long-term relationships, but could never make them great. I considered myself to be neurotic, depressed, and unfixable. I spent a good ten years in complete self-induced misery.
Then, one writing day several months ago, I was pondering a pivotal event in my life: my first and quite innocent heartbreak, when I was fifteen. During the winter break of my sophomore year, I was actively pursued by a boy who I secretly liked. The only issue was that I had a boyfriend, who I broke up with when he returned at the end of the week. The other boy then proceeded to ignore me, and I was left defenseless and confused. It was my first experience with the fickleness of romance and the heavy weight of relationships.
This is not an earthshaking experience. It is, I would surmise, very typical for high school, when all of us are overburdened by hormones and none of us yet knows what we want. What mattered was the depression I plunged into right after all of this happened. Usually the largest chatterbox in class, I started eating in the library so I wouldn’t have to talk to people. I casually joked about killing myself in front of my English teacher. I became such an insufferable snot that even my friends backed away from me.
The question, as I sat looking at the dripping March eaves and leafed through my diaries from that time, was why — why such an innocent, if bogus, interaction would send me into such a plunge.
The answer, I realized, lay in the fantasy. That was the first time the fantasy was actively challenged. I had a perfect daydream constructed around this boy, who, with his high-school brain, saw that pretty quickly. Then, the fantasy was destroyed. Bereft, scared of the numbness that resulted, I felt lost, confused, and alone. I did not know how to look around and have gratitude for my apparent reality. I only knew how to be sad that the fantasy did not exist.
What does a teenage girl do when she is emotionally incapable of dealing with reality? Keep building the fantasy. Keep trying to play it out.
It sounds silly, but up until the moment I realized this — at the age of thirty-one — I had let that sense of fantasy prod me through every day of my life, up and down every hill, even when I actively did not want it to. It was in considering expectation that I fully realized the impact of such a mental process. When a person is forever involved in fantasy, they tend to see what is wrong with their life, what does not fit. That was all I did. I should have known it, because every time I felt grateful, the weight of depression — which was felt, fully, in the weight of my existence — was lifted.
Why? Because gratitude made me present. Remaining present is the only way we can experience true, lasting happiness. When we are wanting, we are either looking back to a time when we had something that we now miss, or looking forward to a time when we might possibly get it. Neither of these is constructive. If, at any moment, we are actively desiring something, then we are not feeling happiness. True, peaceful happiness is edged out by desire. Desire is controlled entirely by expectation.
The next time you find yourself in a terrible place, ask yourself, sincerely, about your expectations. Ask yourself what expectations you have that are not being met. Examine your feelings about those expectations. Most people, when beginning a spiritual path, have trouble with the initial “crash” after the first spiritual “high”. After the honeymoon period of your initial efforts wear off — if you leave the ashram and feel chafed by the return home, if your first attempt to describe your changed feelings to your partner fails, if your community rejects rather than rallies behind you — and you find yourself bowled over by the world again, look no further than your expectations for clues to the impediments to your consciousness. By untangling your feelings about things and, as Swami Satchidananda says, accepting things both coming and going, you will find that, with practice, you can return to mental calm more readily — with more ease than you ever thought possible.
In your next meditation, think of a person or circumstance that is keeping you awake at night or consuming unnecessary energy in your mind during the day. Frankly consider your expectations of that person or circumstance. Then, choose to accept things exactly as they are, without any expectation. You may find that this feels weak, like giving up. You must remember, however, that giving up — giving up your attachment to expectation — is the exact and beautiful goal. With practice, you will find that rather than making you weaker, an increased sense of acceptance makes you more capable of dealing with adversity.
This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
as Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —
— Emily Dickinson, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes (372)”
As many gurus are fond of pointing out, “bad” things will always happen. By changing how you react both physically and mentally to them, you gain a control over your life and energy in a way you may never have considered to be possible. In some schools of thought, this is called “letting go and letting God”. What matters most is, I think, the letting go.