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Ajahn Brahm - Four Ways of Letting go

Published: at 05:17 AM

Ajahn Brahm - Four ways of letting go

Dennis mentioned that I left a meditation retreat at Jhana Grove to give this talk. The retreat ends tomorrow, so I’ve been thinking a lot about meditation. I decided to share a talk from the retreat about how meditation helps with letting go of life’s difficulties. This talk, based on the Buddha’s first teaching, shows four ways to let go. This is useful for everyone, regardless of religious beliefs. Not letting go, like holding onto past troubles or future worries, causes pain for us and those around us. Learning to let go helps us and others be happier.

I chose to be happy for the sake of others who deal with me. Letting go isn’t about abandoning responsibilities, but it’s a useful skill. It’s surprising how hard it is to let go when someone hurts us, as holding onto it lets them hurt us repeatedly. Letting go means they can only hurt you once. Similarly, worrying about future problems, like a cancer diagnosis, is pointless. It’s better to focus on the present, where we can actually make a difference.

I often say that you create your future in the present. So, worrying about what might happen is a waste of time. Letting go of the past and future allows you to be present, healthy, and happy. Holding onto grudges is also pointless. I often joke that karma will deal with those who wrong us, so there’s no need for revenge. We know letting go is sensible, but it’s hard to do. That’s why we need to learn specific ways to let go.

One way is to physically throw away a representation of your worries, like writing them on a stick and tossing it. This helps you understand that life’s burdens are only heavy when you hold onto them. We carry too much mental baggage, which tires us out. Throwing away worries about the past and future can be liberating. Your past is like a prison with an open door; you can choose to leave it behind. Throwing a rock labeled ‘past’ into a river can symbolize this release.

The first step to letting go is realizing it’s possible and beneficial. People often think they need to hold onto the past to learn from it, but letting go is more beneficial. As for the future, worrying about events like the world ending is unnecessary. Focus on what’s happening now, not on uncertain future events.

It won’t end in two years or at any specific time. You don’t think about that. I remember in Indonesia, people talked about it, even on the islands. I joked with them, offering my monastery and the Buddhist Society of Western Australia’s assets against their house. If the world ends, they get our assets, if not, we get their house. No one accepted the bet. But it’s understandable, it’s not a great deal. People fear the future, but one thing is sure - the future is uncertain, especially in Australia. This isn’t a joke; it shows we can’t predict what will happen. Our lives have been full of surprises, taking turns we never expected. This uncertainty is part of life, so we should let go of worries about the future. We should also let go of complaining. Like dogs barking, it’s natural but unnecessary to complain about. Even in relationships, like with spouses or children, complaining doesn’t help. On flights, children often cry, but as a compassionate monk, I think about letting go of complaints rather than getting rid of the problem. We often find faults and complain, even about small things, like not having the right tea. This negative thinking doesn’t help. Instead, we should let go of it. This includes positive thinking too, as too much thinking prevents us from finding peace. By constantly thinking, we miss out on truly experiencing life. There’s a story of Lao Tzu, who walked silently with his disciples. Once, a disciple broke the silence to admire a sunset, and Lao Tzu never walked with him again. The disciple was more focused on his words than the actual sunset. We often get caught up in words and miss real experiences. It’s important to let go of excessive thinking to find peace. We should keep our minds clear, focusing on one thing at a time, just like having only one item on a mantel shelf. This way, we won’t be overwhelmed by thoughts. I have many roles, but I focus on one at a time, which keeps me sane and peaceful. We should live in the present, throwing away thoughts of the past and future. Freedom comes from understanding what truly matters. Once, a monk told prisoners about monastic life, emphasizing the simplicity and discipline, like waking up at four in the morning and not having TVs, which was shocking to them. This shows the different perspectives on freedom and lifestyle choices.

”What do you have for breakfast?” At the monastery, we typically have a small breakfast, usually just a cup of cereal. Some might have noodles, but it’s always limited to one cup. People from Casuarina Jail were surprised to hear this, as they have a variety of options like bacon, pancakes, and cereal. They asked why we don’t have such variety, but we stick to our simple meal of a little cereal. In the mornings, we engage in hard work at Bodhinyana Monastery, doing tasks like building and construction. I personally enjoy participating in concrete work. Once, while covered in concrete, I met a Sri Lankan woman in an expensive sari who was looking for the abbot, Ajahn Brahm. I directed her to a hall and quickly showered and changed. When I met her as Ajahn Brahm, she didn’t recognize me due to my earlier dirty appearance. She praised the monastery but mentioned seeing a dirty monk earlier, to which I assured her I would speak with him.

We then discussed our afternoon routine, which involves meditation. Despite suggestions for other activities like music or football, our focus is on meditation. We don’t have dinner at the monastery; we only eat in the morning. Even our meals are simple, with everything mixed in one bowl, often leading to unusual combinations like custard on spaghetti. In contrast, prison meals are more organized, with separate compartments for different foods.

The prisoners were surprised to learn that we sleep on the floor, as even prisons have cots with mattresses. This led to a discussion about the difference between a monastery and a prison. The key difference is that people choose to be in a monastery, while no one wants to be in prison. This illustrates that any place you don’t want to be can become a prison. Changing your attitude and wanting to be where you are is the key to freedom and contentment.

I also talked about different ways of letting go, as taught in Buddhism. One method is to give without expecting anything in return. This is practiced in our monastery, where donations are made anonymously. In relationships and life, expecting returns can lead to suffering, whereas giving freely without expectations can bring fulfillment and joy.

When you meditate, if you’re hoping to gain something from it, like enlightenment, peace, or a cure for cancer, you won’t find peace. Ajahn Chah said that meditation is about letting go, not about gaining. It’s about giving without expecting anything in return. This approach makes life more beautiful. When I give talks, I don’t expect anything in return. For instance, I might not get the right cup of tea, but that doesn’t bother me. You should do things without expecting a reward. This idea often surprises people. Once, a Polish lady asked me about the cost to attend my talk. I explained it was free, but she kept asking about the payment. I assured her it was entirely free, and she was genuinely surprised that we expected nothing in return for giving. This is a wonderful way to live, just giving for the joy of it. For example, I give milk to my cat without expecting thanks. Giving without expecting anything back is a beautiful way to let go.

So, give your kindness and love to life without expecting anything in return. This is what letting go and spiritual life are about – giving rather than receiving. I’ve dedicated my life to this and found richness in happiness and peace. Another way of letting go is to have a ‘teflon mind’, where nothing sticks. Don’t hold onto experiences or try to remember them for the future. Let go of both happy and sad moments. This allows you to enjoy each new moment without the past influencing it.

Avoid letting your knowledge and understanding make you conceited and blind to the present. Knowledge can prevent you from seeing the truth in each moment. People with too much knowledge about Buddhism, for example, may struggle to understand it in the present. Knowledge should be a guide, not a barrier to experiencing truth.

I once told a story about a philosophy professor who misunderstood the difference between a menu and a meal. He ate the menu at a fancy restaurant, mistaking it for the food. This shows the difference between knowledge and experience. Don’t get too caught up in what others say, like the Buddha or Jesus. Focus on your own experiences.

Finally, I shared my experience living in northeast Thailand, a region untouched by Western culture, to illustrate the freedom and insight that comes from letting go.

I visited some villages where I was the first Western person the villagers had ever seen. Once, while collecting alms, they were so surprised to see a white man that they kept missing the bowl with the food. I lived there as a monk, not just a visitor, which allowed me to become part of their society and see things through their perspective. What surprised me was the lack of grief in their culture, even at funerals. Despite my previous beliefs about grief being necessary, I learned it wasn’t always the case.

My experiences taught me not to let preconceived notions obscure the truth. This was evident when I traveled to Indonesia, known for its Muslim population and the Bali bombings. Contrary to expectations, I had a great time there, even with Muslims attending my talks and wanting photos with me. This showed me how false assumptions can prevent us from seeing the real situation.

I advocate for a “teflon mind,” where you don’t let biases stick and block your view of reality. I suggest four ways to let go: discard unnecessary mental burdens, be content with what you have, give without expecting anything in return, and keep a mind that doesn’t hold onto thoughts or knowledge. This approach helps in overcoming life’s problems. It’s important to balance work with letting go and resting, a concept not often practiced in Western or Westernized societies.