“Letting Go” as a Practice Sand Trap

Last night while sitting for samatha (calm-abiding, concentration) breath meditation, I felt blockages catch up the breath at the level of the throat and chest. My mind was swimming, and I noticed that certain petty
stories obscuring energy arose and that my mind chased after the stories for long whiles, indulging in them. Then I remembered that I was intending to focus on and enjoy the calming breath, that I should “let go” of anger by letting go of the stupid, infuriating stories.

Effort as Practice Trap

However, I then realized deeply, because as personal experience, something I have only read here and there before now: I cannot “let go” of anger simply by foisting this agenda for release on the actual inner situation I, through karmic propensities, find myself in. In other words, intending to let go is trying to make something different from “what is” happen. It is aversion to here and now.

Consequently, what I ended up intentionally letting go of during this sit was the injunction to “let go” of anger and return full focus to the calming comfort of the breath. Instead, I remembered something more I had read in Thanissaro Bhikkhu about having to master states of mind before letting go of them. Although I did cease chasing after the crazymaking stories, I invited the anger itself in for the duration of the sit. I observed what it was doing to snag my breath in the throat and chest. Mindful of this discomfort, I realized through adherence to direct experience that anger is an inside con job.

Anger as an Abandonment Recital

Truly, whoever I’m angry at isn’t the object; I myself am the object of all that red steam. If I crack that con fount open and admit some clearer light, anger is seen to be really a frightening degree of sadness — a horror of abandonment.

Anger as Best Door to Insight

Anger is never itself, you see. It is a sham emotion, a delusion the mind fabricates and then 100% believes in only because being angry at x seems  less devastating than feeling hurt, left out, betrayed, or rejected by x. Paradoxically, in this sense, anger is important to feel and not to simply “let go” of, as if that were even possible–it is important to invite it to stay the night within a framework of Right View. It is in fact the best emotion to begin insight practice with, because it is, I further realized, the prototype for all emotion-delusions that the mind fabricates.

Interestingly, when I examined my anger this way and knew it intimately, “letting go” was the natural result, at least for the rest of the sit. Only – it wasn’t really “letting go,” which still implies some fiat on my part. 

Ajahn Chah on Separating Mind from Feeling

After I opened my eyes and rose from the floor, I started reading the collected works of Ajahn Chah, who happened to address this very realization in the passage I randomly opened to:

“When we say the Buddha told us to separate the mind from the feeling, he didn’t literally mean to throw them to different places. He meant that the mind must know happiness and know unhappiness. When sitting in samadhi, for example, and peace fills the mind, happiness comes but it doesn’t reach us, unhappiness comes but doesn’t reach us. This is how one separates the feeling from the mind. We can compare it to oil and water in a bottle. They don’t combine. Even if you try to mix them, the oil remains oil and the water remains water, because they are of different density.” 

When you really thoroughly know a thought-fabrication, in other words, you automatically experience the mind as separate from it:  “We say that we separate mind and feeling in this way but in fact they are by nature already separate. Our realization is simply to know this natural separateness according to reality. When we say they are not separated it’s because we’re clinging to them through ignorance of the
truth.” This is why we must meditate — to replace delusion with such insight.

Samatha-Vipassana as One Practice

Another realization during this sit was that Thanissaro is correct: samatha (calming) and vipassana (insight) meditations are not actually two separate types of meditation; instead, there is more properly samatha-vipassana, where stillness gives rise to discernment, and discernment gives rise to stillness (they help each other along by turns). I’m not at all advanced in samatha, so it was astonishing to have experienced vipassana at all, which is often taught as attainable only after stability in samatha. Thanissaro is always stressing that meditation requires individual experimentation in using one branch as a crutch for propelling the other forward; now I understand — through experience — what he means!

Language as Nonconstative Performance at Best

Another paradox ripening as I write is that none of this “stuff” can be satisfactorily reduced to language and transmitted to others — especially by a beginner, like me. The evidence for what I’m speaking of is existential, experiential; where there is no effort to meditate, there will be absolutely no apprehension of the ways in which beings fabricate delusion and believe that delusion is inescapable “reality.” Nevertheless, I was helped early on and am still helped by those who have taken the trouble to try to reduce meditative insights to words. They point to a mere hint; I walk on now beyond that trailhead alone.

Postscript 3 Years Later

[A full 3 years and several awakenings after having written the above entry, it is interesting to note that I’m now cycling back around to work, at a deeper level, on the same obscuration – anger as fear. I’m doing so through some advanced Chöd-like tantric practices and work on first and third chakras. As my teacher says, “The victim and the perpetrator are bound together, and if you identify with being the victim and aren’t willing to feel what it is like to be the perpetrator, then you won’t free up the clear vajra energy underneath anger.” These more current practices are documented in my current journal, Dharma by Daylight.