Tether the Elephant and Let It Go
If there is one thing both the Mahayana sutras and Theravada suttas agree on, it is the necessity of mindfulness. But what does it mean to be mindful? It’s more than simply paying attention, though that’s part of it. To be mindful is both being fully present in whatever situation we find ourselves while also being inwardly aware of what is happening with our mind in that context. It is one of the main skills Buddhists attempt to learn on the cushion and practice everywhere else in our lives, with varying degrees of success. It may be all the more difficult for modern Buddhists because we live in a world of ready made distraction. Far from being overwhelmed by the simply details of our daily work and family life, we have a thousand television channels, millions of books (billions?), computer games, and the endless depths of the internet to entertain us. Why be mindful when we have all this to explore?
There are actually some very compelling reasons. First of all, we should be mindful because we want to stop suffering. In order to stop suffering, we must clearly see the roots of our suffering. So, second, we use mindfulness to cultivate discernment. Once we can see the causes and conditions, we can begin to unravel them. Thus, third, we can let go of those things which cause our suffering and work on those factors leading to enlightenment. And fourth, mindfulness also allows us to cultivate our ability to see and identify with the suffering of others, aka compassion and empathy. This allows us to work with the world around us in a way that reduces the collective suffering of society. This is the work of a bodhisattva.
When we remain mindful, at the moment a thing comes into our senses we can remain neutral, rather than being immediately pleased or displeased. We can see a beautiful diamond necklace and appreciate it with delight without being overcome by avarice or self-pity. We can spot a deadly spider and take correct action to protect ourselves without screaming in fright.
We have to observe and evaluate things so as to see them clearly in a way that allows us to let them go. The mind will then be empty of any sense of self. Even if you can experience this emptiness only momentarily, it’s still very worthwhile. – Nanayon
Mindfulness helps us understand our own mind, starting with our own cultural assumptions so that we “are no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously,” according to Alan Watts in Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen (1959). Mindfulness therefore establishes us in equanimity.
Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo states (translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) that in order to let go “we need a high level of skill, called bhavanamaya-pañña – the discernment that comes from developing the mind in meditation – to gain release.” Letting go requires mindfulness, discernment, and intelligence. How we react to our opponents and criticizers is a ripe field for developing this kind of mindfulness. Upasika Kee Nanayon believes, “This is what it means to have discernment and intelligence. You know how to take criticism in an intelligent way.” Ken Jones quotes Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo: “To learn the way of the Buddha is to learn about oneself. To learn about oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to experience the world as pure object – to let fall one’s own mind and body and the self-other mind and body.” If criticism helps us learn about ourselves, it is to be welcomed mindfully.
Letting go is also known as renunciation: the “turning away from craving and its drive for gratification.” However, the very act of trying to let go brings up a “powerful inner resistance.” Mindfulness is the most powerful tool we have for actualizing full renunciation. Mindfulness helps us let go of things we once cherished not by force of will, but by altering our viewpoint so that we are no longer bound to them. “For real security always lies on the side of truth, not on the side of comfort,” Bhikkhu Bodhi reminds us. In mindfulness and meditation we can cultivate renunciation by contemplating the nature of suffering (dukkha) caused by desire and the benefits of renunciation such as fearlessness and joy as well as the purification of conduct, improvement of concentration, and nourishing of wisdom. When we do this “Attachments are shed like the leaves of a tree, naturally and spontaneously,” Bhikkhu Bodhi says.
The primary thing we let go of are the selfish ‘needs’ of our ego. Our sense of self changes, expands, and begins to truly include the needs of others in such a way that it opens our hearts. Shantideva called this bodhicitta, or ‘awakened heart/mind’ in the Bodhicaryavatara (The Way of the Bodhisattva).
If, with mindfulness’ rope,
The elephant of the mind is tethered all around,
Our fears will come to nothing,
Every virtue drop into our hands.
…This point is essential: mindfulness tethers the mind to the present. Initially this takes effort, but this effort is applied with a very light touch. It’s like brushing your teeth: you brush, you get distracted, and you just naturally come back. No big deal.
…Now Shantideva’s words might give us the idea that this will be quick: “I’ll work with my mind and by this time next month my problems may be over.” But in truth, our mental habits are ancient and take awhile to unwind.
– Pema Chodron, No Time To Loose, p. 105-6
We need not only to be mindful. We need to be persistent. And we’re going to fail – a lot. Which, I suppose, is why Buddhists call it “practice.” When we are mindful, even while failing, we get a glimpse into everything that keeps us bound to samsara, to our egos, and to suffering. Even being mindful of when we’ve forgotten to be mindful is a step in the right direction. Of course, we’ve got a long way to go. (I know I do.) Good luck!
Ajaan Lee Dhammadhara, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Letting Go: Notes from a talk, April 21, 1953,” Access to Insight, 23 December 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/lee/startsmall.html, retrieved on 14 November 2011
Bhikkhu Bodhi, “The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering,” Access to Insight, 16 June 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html, retrieved on 14 November 2011.
Chodron, Pema, No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambhala Publications, 2007.
Jones, Ken, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/jones/wheel285.html, retrieved on 14 November 2011.
Upasika Kee Nanayon, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Stop, Look, and Let Go: July 28, 1965,” Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/kee/stoplook.html, retrieved on 14 November 2011.