The mornings are always cold, but my body eventually emerges from the cradle of blankets. In the darkness, I quiet the alarm and stumble into the bathroom. The warm wall lights strike against any remaining intention to crawl back to bed next to my husband who dreams, deeply. I remind myself that this is what I love to do, and within moments I feel by body waking to an inner joy that only comes when something real is about to happen. I slip into a sweatshirt, brush my teeth, pull hair away from my eyes, and walk to the corner of the house that became my personal sanctuary. It is so simple, I think to myself. This is it.
Recently, I experienced a transformation in my meditation practice and I want to share it with you. I aspired to write about it for so long but did not have the words to fully convey it. Before I dive into some of the key insights that emerged to the surface, I must tell you that the more I learn, the more I realize I have to learn – as the old saying goes. The more I “take a seat” in meditation, the more clarity I have, but words continue to fail me. This does not mean, though, that I have some kind of remarkable triumph. Rather, I feel so strongly that if it is something that I can encounter, I know with every ounce of my being that it can be experienced by everyone else.
Of key importance to this topic is the idea of “letting go.” There are many who believe that meditation is not an option for them because of different expectationsand assumptions of the practice. When one presupposes that meditation should happen in a specific way, with a very specific goal in mind, it becomes a set up for struggle. Therefore, I state a caveat: I truly believe that what I am about to write doeshappen, but the individual should not wait for it. In other words, do not walk into meditation practice with an image of what accomplishment looks like already set in the mind.
Over the last few months, I felt like I arrived at meditation with a level of anxiety and stress that I had not previously experienced. [Note: I write “arrived” because I literally arrive at a certain place in my home, an important thing to have if it is available to you, and I arrive into a particular emotional, mental, and spiritual space in meditation.] I held the stress in the area of my eyes the most, like the bones around my eyes were made of steel. There was no softness or calm and I noticed it most keenly when I closed my eyes for meditation. It was distracting. Yet, I continued on and each morning I sat on the cushion, believing that the only resolution was found in this exact action. Slowly – in fractions of seconds, spread out over days and days – I let go of whatever I held on to. The work of simply showing up resulted in greater ease as I waited and held the space in meditation.
I am letting go of something that my hands clutch so tightly: a perception of the self that is conjured, created, protected, and deeply rooted. It is the Mess of All Things, heaped together over time by others and our own self-attention, that gives us the answer to the question, “Who am I?” It is not bad to have an answer. The bulk of our society functions on the fact that we have personal identities that flow into responsibilities, relationships, and fulfilling experiences. However, it is not the same as knowing the True Self. Who we are is not an accumulation of relationships or tasks, but it is extraordinarily deeper and more profound. Even statements like “I am a child of God” do not provide a full sense of the truth. Suffering occurs when we hold on to this false sense of self, as many spiritual traditions explain (clarified particularly well in Buddhism.)
Letting go is the opposite of striving. In the Christian medieval text, The Cloud of Unknowing, the author describes the process of contemplation – what we now call centering prayer, a form of meditation originating from the Christian mystic tradition – as a process of letting go of all the things that God as made. He writes, “Forget everything God made and everybody who exists and everything that’s going on in the world, until your thoughts and emotions aren’t focused on or reaching toward anything, not in a general way and not in a particular way. Let them be. For the moment, don’t care about anything.”How is this possible? It seems profoundly difficult, but it is quite possibly the simplest thing that one could ever do.
We spend so much time forming identities – our own and that of others. We connect, connect, connect, and create, create, create. Most of our mental and emotional energy is expended over these actions. Letting go, in the sense of the Cloud writer’s definition, is to discontinue this process. It is more than simply “not thinking” about the day’s tasks or yesterday’s conversation. It is suspending the process of evaluating the world. In addition, it is ceasing to create the image of God that is perched on the high shelf in our mind.
No matter your religious tradition (or lack thereof) we all have a particular image of God: benevolent or vengeful, male or female, close or distant – all of these create an image of God that is based upon experiences we have here on earth. In meditation, we can release these assumptions. It is an attempt at no effort. There is no striving.
Personally, I have been striving my whole life. I look back upon my years: I strive as a mother, since the birth of my son two years ago; I strive professionally and educationally to succeed in my career; I strive in my social life to acquire and maintain relationships; I remember striving in my youth for the attention and affection of those who were in charge of my wellbeing. Meditation, regardless of tradition, is about releasing ourselves from the act of striving.
“Striving” has little to do with personality types. We all strive. We all try. We all endeavor. We all create identities, even if “not creating” is part of one’s identity. Even the most laid-back individual partakes in the formation of identity and striving.
This is important to understand because an awareness of the reality of striving is the thing that distinguishes real rest from anything else. The true letting go of all things is simultaneously desired and terrifying. If we let go completely, what will we have left? The answer is: true identity. Even if we experience it for a millisecond, a profound change occurs in our sense of self. No, it will not turn you into a disconnected flake. Rather, it makes one capable to sense the apparatus that is built around the true self and know that certain things do not matter so much. The way we present ourselves to the world, the ways we interact with people – all of these become disconnected, even if only a little, from the act of striving and we can live with greater ease. One can also sense this apparatus around others and begin to see people for who they are. When we let go of the overt and the subtle (worries, concerns, thoughts, pleasures, memories, etc.), we can release into true rest. Momentary suspension of these burdens creates day-to-day ease. This is true surrender.
Meditation is not always pretty. More often than not it is messy, and even a little difficult, particularly if one approaches it with expectation. It is also a bit scary because we all have an emotional connection to our sense of self. Who am I, if I am no longer these things? Am I able to sit without concern over my body, emotions, and experiences?
I am still learning how to do this, of course, but one thing I do know is that sitting in rest is the only true rest that one can know. It is rest in God, because it is sincerely letting go of all the things we hold on to that we have conjured up, created, and formed by our own will. It is a rest that goes beyond body and mind. It is also locating our real self, though I do not know how to define it just yet. What I do know is this: meditation is the place where none of my preconceived notions of myself can tag along to tell God who I am.
The Cloud of Unknowing, translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2009), 11.