My teacher, Ajahn Da, often summarizes our practice as seeing and knowing what is here, particularly in the mind, and letting it go. Seeing and knowing what is here means seeing and knowing what is here as a present moment phenomenon. So, when the mind is thinking a thought, or experiencing an emotion, simply know that the mind is creating a thought or an emotion. It doesn’t mean seeing and knowing the story contained in the thought or lying behind the emotion, as the narrative within the thought is not what is actually happening in the present moment. Of course, we will know what the mind is thinking, but the point is not to worry about what the mind is thinking when we are practicing. Instead, encourage curiosity in the arising and passing away of present moment phenomena – a pleasant or unpleasant feeling tone, a thinking mind, an angry mind, an anxious mind, etc.
Letting go means not holding on to what is experienced, not attaching to it and not identifying with it. But this term “letting go” can sometimes be problematic. People sometimes hear this as saying they should somehow stop or get rid of it. In common parlance, when someone tells you that you should let something go, they are usually advising you to stop thinking about something, or saying you should just give it up and get over it. But this is really not the meaning intended here. So, I would like to propose that instead of “letting go”, we think of it as letting it be. To me, rather than suggesting getting over something, “let it be” suggests just leaving it alone.
To illustrate what I mean, I would like to share a question that was raised by a practitioner lately. This practitioner shared that she is able to enter a pleasant peaceful state of mind when practicing, but then she loses that pleasant state and finds herself struggling to get back to it. Probably most of us can relate to this experience if we have been practicing for a while. To translate this situation into Dhamma language – there is the memory of a pleasant mental feeling, and there is a mind that is trying to recover that pleasant mental feeling. The practice here would be to see and know that there is a memory of a pleasant feeling present in the mind, and to also see and know that there is a wanting mind state present; there is a mind that is pursuing that pleasant feeling. This is the seeing and knowing part of the practice. The “let it be” part of the practice is to not try to fix or eliminate either the memory or the wanting mind. Just let these two phenomena run their course while seeing and knowing them.
What makes this difficult is all our past conditioning. We are so used to feeling like we need to be constantly fixing and improving things – particularly ourselves. To let things be seems irresponsible. If there is a problematic mind state present, and we let it be, it might just get worse and worse. But our practice is not to ignore anything, but to let it be while also seeing and knowing it with curiosity – with mindful present moment awareness. To let an experience be, while at the same time seeing and knowing it as a present moment phenomenon, deprives that mental experience of the energy it needs to keep proliferating. To do this is to transcend, or move beyond, the difficulty. As long as we are engaging the difficult mental experience by trying to fix it, we will remain stuck on the hamster wheel of suffering. I encourage everyone to please try this out for themselves and see whether it is true or not.
There are two caveats here. One is to not allow anything to unfold in a way that harms self or others. The other is that if a mental experience feels very strong and overpowering – maybe due to some past trauma – do not try to simply see and know it. Instead have compassion for yourself and find a way to change the channel the mind is on using any coping strategies you’ve learned – perhaps just staying with the present moment feeling of the body. You will still be learning something valuable. You will be learning self-compassion, and you will be learning that it is possible to change the channel. When that overpowering emotion has passed, you can come back to seeing, knowing, and letting it be.