Walking along the coast in the dark, a man lost his footing, slipped down a cliff face, managed to grab hold of a branch and is dangling there, desperately hanging on as it slowly begins to give way...
He shouts at the top of his voice,” Is there anyone up there who can help me!?”
A calm voice calls back from an unseen passer-by who is aware that the cliff is just a few feet tall and the man’s feet are just 6 inches from the beach below. “Don’t worry, everything is going to be OK, all you have to do is let go. Everything will be fine – don’t panic, just let go…”
There’s a short pause and the man’s voice now risen to a scream, yells “Isn’t there anyone else up there who can help me!!!???”
Letting go can sometimes be the hardest thing to do. If we know anything at all about the Buddha’s teaching, it is that everything is impermanent. There is nothing in the world or in the universe that is unchanging - except perhaps the truth that everything changes. The Buddha went on to say that all our pain, unsatisfactoryness and suffering stems from craving for or clinging to things that are impermanent.
I have been a parent to five girls and one boy and I know that the hardest thing for a parent is to see their children grow up, recognising that sometime, they are going to move away. They will move away not just physically but they are also going to become of independent mind with their own thoughts and ideas – inevitably some are going diverge from our own values and concepts. Knowing when and how to let them go is one of the toughest decisions parents have to make. If you are an avid Archer’s listener, you will be aware that Tony Archer’s daughter Pip is eighteen, living at home whilst studying at college. She has met Jude, a man well into his 20’s and naturally her parents are worried that she is being exploited by this older man. Whilst her mother is unhappy and uncomfortable with the situation, she recognises that Pip is no longer a child and although she sees danger in the relationship, she knows that she has to allow her daughter the freedom to learn from her own mistakes. Her father, on the other hand, refuses to recognise that Pip is no longer ‘daddies little girl’ and his open hostility towards Jude causes his daughter to rebel, which in turn causes him more anger and suffering. He is caught in a typical parental dilemma – he feels the need to protect his daughter from harm but does not recognise that it is time to step back - to let go – at least in part.
Experiencing unrequited love can be extremely painful particularly where you once had a close personal relationship but your partner now wishes to move on. It is natural that you should do all you can to retain the relationship but if you don’t succeed you will have to accept at some stage that you must let them go There are even songs about it, “If you love somebody – let them go…” The longer you cling on, the more painful it will be.
When a loved one dies grieving is natural – we have lost someone who was dear to us and we miss them but if we don’t eventually acknowledge that they have gone and let them go, the suffering and unhappiness is going to continue. There is a Buddhist funeral ceremony that I feel is particularly beneficial although undeniably emotional. A long white silk ribbon is held by all the mourners. They are asked to meditate on their memory of the loved one who has died; celebrating and rejoicing in their good times together. At an appropriate point, they are asked to hold on to their memories but ‘let go’ of their loved one’s presence. As they recognise and accept that life must go on without them, the ribbon is gently and slowly pulled through their hands until it is released.
On a more mundane level, we can get very attached to ‘things’ and possessions. When they are lost, broken or even stolen we can get very upset or angry – this is a natural reaction and is perfectly harmless as long as we quickly accept that that thing has gone – and get over it. If you have listened to me talk on this subject before you may have heard me refer to a particular type of car I had lusted after for years. Eventually I had an opportunity to own one and because it was the exact model I wanted and at a price I could just about afford, I was determined to have it. So determined, that I didn’t take care to check it out as thoroughly as I should have done. In spite of 20+ years of studying the Buddha Dharma, I allowed my craving to blind me to the suffering that would inevitably follow such a strong attachment to something as decidedly impermanent as a second hand car. Before a year was out, the engine blew up on the way back home from this Tuesday class. It was beyond repair, towed away to the scrap yard in return for £200. It was a tough and painful reminder of the dangers of attachment.
I am not saying that we must remain detached and unemotional regarding our relationships with the people we love or the things we have worked so hard for. That’s not the case. What I am saying is that you should never forget that all things are impermanent. Eventually you have to let go whether it be a loved one, a valued possession, your youth, beauty, a career, even life itself. Last year I was asked if I would visit a man who just had a few days to live. He was dying of cancer and had said he would like to meet a Buddhist. He was not a Buddhist himself but he had travelled very widely and often in Buddhist countries and felt a strong affinity with Buddhism. His wife believed in re-birth and he wanted to talk to a Buddhist about their view of this. I was a little nervous of the visit as I expected it to be harrowing. The man was several years younger than me. He lay in his bed breathing oxygen and looking very frail. Before I could speak, he greeted me by saying that he wanted to make it clear at the outset that he was not angry about dying. He had enjoyed a wonderful life, travelling all over the world as an IT specialist. He had a wonderful wife and beautiful, loving children. His home was set in lovely rural parkland and even as he lay in his bed he could look out of the window and still enjoy it. If he felt anything at all, it was just a sense of disappointment that it was coming to an end. We sat together for over an hour during which we talked easily and laughed a great deal. I hope he enjoyed meeting me as much as I enjoyed meeting him. Afterwards I felt inspired and privileged to have spent time together. I had seen a man with so much that he could have clung to but he was prepared to ‘let go’. Consequently there was no anguish, no anger, no ‘why me?’ It was a significant event in my life and I hope that when my time comes, I will be able to emulate both his equanimity and courage.
The man clinging to the tree branch just inches from safety could have let go and brought his fear and suffering to an end but preferred to ignore the wise voice, clung even more tightly to impermanence and continued to suffer.