“Letting go, letting be. Highest practice.” - Hongzhi
These guiding words from the 12th century Chan master, Hongzhi, are at least as relevant today as they were nine centuries ago.
In this autumn time of year, Nature gracefully demonstrates the ubiquitous beauty and practice of letting go. As the temperature drops and the days shorten, dead leaves and twigs remind us of a time gone by, not long ago, when all was green and lively. One morning, frost covers whatever green remains. The scene has completely changed again. Before we know it, all is white with a cloak of snow. Do we even remember the green gone by?
As we approach the darkest time of year, it is natural to seek the warmth and light of hearth and heart at home. Like the frozen plants outside, we naturally quiet ourselves under blankets, burrowing into the depths of our psyches.
Our mad western culture whips us into frenzied shopping sprees. Anything to keep us from our deeper essence…
What would happen if we allowed ourselves to settle under the howl of winter winds, cuddling with our loved ones in front of the fire, eating warm food and listening, listening, listening to the whispers of wisdom most easily heard in the darkness…
We might ask ourselves, what is it we are running from? What might we feel should we allow ourselves to let go and be? What might we notice? What might we sense?
If Nature’s images are relevant at all, we might conjecture that deepest fear is of the very death and dying we are surrounded by.
Dying our Birth
We all know that leaves fall and flowers die in autumn. What may be less obvious is that death surrounds us from the moment we are conceived. We are, in fact, dependent on it for our survival…
How can this be? There is so much to be learned from the littlest expression of our humanness – the embryo. Programmed cell death (also known as apoptosis) is an essential aspect of our early development. Our formation in the womb occurs through a combination of cell activities. Cells divide, migrate, change shape, and even disappear in service of the larger figure being created.
The hands I am typing this article with, for example, began much the way they would if you were to form them from clay. Two little roundish blobs of clay are pressed into more specific fingers and thumbs by pinching out the spaces between fingers. Extra bits of clay are discarded, perhaps to be recycled into some other parts to be added later. The little blobs of embryonic tissue that will form into hands begin similarly, growing webs between the fingers. Through apoptosis, the cells between the fingers die in the 16th week of gestation. If this important cell death does not occur, the child is born with webbed hands that are less able to do important things like typing.
Similarly, the development of the nervous system in young humans depends on certain cells dying at the right time. We now know that the nervous system produces billions of neurons, or nerve cells, before birth. In the later part of pregnancy, the number of brain cells drops, so that we are born with only about one hundred billion. As the little one learns, new pathways are formed while unused ones fade. At several important periods of development, the brain cleans house, resulting in a drastic reduction in the number of neurons.
If death is such an important part of our development, why do we not celebrate it more? Instead, our modern, western cultural tendency is to work hard to achieve what we have and cling to it. We value youthful health, and fight against symbols of aging, the wrinkles, the glasses, the stiffness and aches.
Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
– Dylan Thomas
As I watch my parents in their eighties age in a way I can no longer deny, I must also acknowledge my own resistance to them changing. Even with years of practice observing change from moment to moment through Vipassana meditation, part of me still hangs onto an imagined security of the past. Why is it so hard to loosen our hold on what has been and simply embrace what is?
The Lure of this Moment
My life has a way of speeding up, with all the spaces becoming full. Resting in the moment becomes reminiscent of finding a parking space during the Christmas shopping rush. If I start early enough, I find a space before all the shoppers arrive. My practice, therefore, is to give myself space each morning, before things accelerate.
Before I even turn over in bed, I remind myself of breath. Breath moving in. Breath moving out. I sense the weight of my body resting into gravity, the support of the bed under me, the weight of my arm on my ribs. Emerging from my dream into the morning light, I check into sensations in my body. Warm or cold. Tingly. Itchy. Heaviness. Lightness. Achiness or a sense of glow. As I survey the sensations, the possibilities are endless. I find myself drawn into the magic of the present moment. It has so much to offer.
As a practitioner of Continuum Movement, my next step is to make some sounds into the tissues of my body. I often begin by bringing my attention to the mid-line running up from my tail to the top of my head. I make some gentle “O” sounds, sensing their vibration traveling up the mid-line, waking up the tissues. As the sound moves, the aches begin to dissolve. It is as if the cells wake up and stretch and sing. I find my usual morning stiffness melting into warm, soft waves of pleasure streaming up and down my body. Tissues decompress, becoming so light that they begin to float weightlessly in the air. At some point, my body begins to lift itself off the bed and I flow with it into my day.
As the day takes over my consciousness, the activities of breakfast seduce my mind, attempting to convince it that preparing porridge is different, or even more important than being present. On my better mornings, however, the left over pleasure from my morning practice continues to predominate. The sensation of flow in my body is so delicious and omnipresent, it counters the temptation to be distracted by the tasks at hand. Instead, the flow of pleasure infuses the cooking. The porridge tastes better, and I am present to taste it.
Fluid Presence, Letting Go
I notice that when I am in a more fluid state, change is easier. When my tissues are tight, my mind contracts. My body holds on, lessening the sense of inner space. Once my body is flowing, the mind also softens. Old fear-based walls become less important. Mind flows with the moment. Porridge. Cells singing. Morning news. Morning kisses. Whoever enters my morning world becomes part of a fascinating whole, each moment offering enhanced sensation and potential.
Being present in this way requires a willingness to let go. If I demand that reality stay the same, I stop the flow. I stop the pleasure. I may be under the illusion that I also stop death. But death continues, every moment, whether I acknowledge it or not, whether I embrace it or not. The leaves still fall. The frost still comes. I can complain about the loss of green, or I can enter the potential it offers. Ironically, as I embrace the change and death all around and in me, I experience a new level of aliveness. Every dead twig presents its beauty. I am nourished by each new moment in a new way.
The wintery days continue to shorten. The darkness is everywhere. If we push it away, partying late into the night, we may not appreciate the brightness of the snow in the morning. We may not notice when the darkness reaches its peak and the days actually begin to lengthen. Clinging to our winter woes, we may forget to celebrate the death of winter as the spring is born.
Like seeing a glass as half empty or half full, we can perceive a world filled with death or characterized by birth. It is only when we look outside the usual definitions and perceptually enter into each moment that we recognize the wholeness of being, where death and birth are one, both to be welcomed, both offering gifts.