Fear of Letting Go
April 02, 2024

There’s a custom in Thailand that when a person has died, before they put the body into the casket, they’ll lay it out on a table with a hand off the edge of the table and a bowl of flowers underneath the hand. People come and pour water over the hand as a way of asking forgiveness for the wrongs they may have done that person while the person was still alive. One of the points that a lot of the ajaans will make is that you look at the hand: It’s empty.

What this symbolizes, of course, is that no matter how much you’ve been holding on to things in this life, you can’t take them with you. We hold on, thinking that these things will provide us with safety, provide us with happiness, yet then we have to let them go. We go to another life and hold on again.

You have to ask yourself: What kind of hand are you leaving? Or what kind of hand are you taking with you, symbolically? Is it an open hand that was able to let go easily? Or is it like that famous actor who said, “You’ll have to pry my gun from my cold, dead hands if you’re going to take it away”? You’d take a grasping hand with you.

In other words, you’re going to take a grasping mind, because that’s what it comes down to. We think we’re depending on things outside, but we’re depending on certain attitudes in the mind itself. If, for most our lives, we’ve been depending on greed, aversion, and delusion, those are our refuge. Lust, jealousy—all these things: We think that we’re going to find happiness by cultivating these mind states as we hold on to things, hold on to the desire for revenge if we feel we’ve been wronged, hold on to the desire for more sensual pleasures if we feel that we haven’t had enough—but again, the revenge itself, the pleasures, they leave you.

What you take with you is the mental attitude that tries to hold on to those things. Is that healthy? Is it something you can really depend on? Part of us says Yes. It’s through our lust that we’ve gotten our sensual desires at least half satisfied. It’s through our anger we’ve gotten people to do things we wanted them to do when they were resistant. As for delusion, we don’t recognize it as delusion.

**But we do sometimes recognize that if we’re jealous, we think we can hold on to some people. Or if we’re envious, we think that we can drag other people down. Still, what position is your hand taking as you try to drag people down or hold on to people? That represents the attitude of the mind. **

The Buddha’s saying, No, you’re holding on to the wrong things. You’re trying to depend on the wrong things. As an alternative, he gives you the path. Hold on to this, he says, and it’ll take you to a place where you don’t have to hold on to anything anymore and yet you’ll be perfectly fine. In other words, the mind will finally be able to stand on its own two feet instead of having to depend on this person or that, on this unskillful attitude or that unskillful one.

So with all the things he teaches us—right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration—he says, try holding on to these. Make these the attitudes that you take with you. They’ll take you far. They’ll take you to something solid. Those other things you’ve been depending on will take you for a little ways, and then you’re dropped back down again. You grasp and climb and climb and climb, and then you fall back down again. And the things you tend to grasp and climb on: It’s not as if you go to great states of being through those attitudes. But as long as you can’t imagine anything better, you keep doing that.

Think of the case of King Koravya talking with the monk, Ven. Raṭṭhapāla. They talk about how the king is getting old and frail. He used to be strong, but now he can’t even make sure that his foot goes where he wants it to go when he tries to walk. He has recurring illnesses. No matter how much power he has, he can’t ordain that his courtiers share the pain of his disease so that he can feel less. He has to feel it all on his own. He has no power over his aging and over his illness. When he dies, he’s going to have to leave everything, all his riches, behind.

**Then he comes against the Dhamma summary that says, “The world is a slave to craving.” Of course, kings don’t like to be called slaves. So he asks, “What does this mean?” Raṭṭhapāla asks him in return, “If there were a kingdom to the east, and someone came from the kingdom and said, ‘With your army, you could conquer that kingdom. It’s got a lot of wealth. It’s got a lot of women. You could take them all for your own,’ would you go for it?” And even after reflecting on aging, illness, and death and how nothing really belongs to you, the king would go for it. “How about a kingdom to the south?” “Yes.” “Kingdom to the west?” “Yes.” “Kingdom to the north?” “Yes.” “Kingdom on the other side of the ocean?” “Yes.” **

This is our blindness. We can see the drawbacks of these things and yet we’re afraid to let go of them. We can’t think of anything better. We don’t have any confidence in anything better. This is what the Buddha’s asking you to do: Have confidence in your ability to follow the path, to develop these qualities in the mind. Some people say, “I just can’t imagine myself having all those qualities.” But if you work on them, you become a different person. It may take a while. Sometimes the steps are baby steps. But if they’re steps in the right direction, you find, after a while, that the things you couldn’t do in the past—you couldn’t even imagine yourself doing in the past—suddenly become possible.

It’s like climbing a mountain, and new vistas are open to you as you climb. When people stay at the foot of the mountain, they ask the people up at the top, “What do you see?” The people at the top say, “I see this, this, this.” The people at the bottom say, “Well, I don’t see that. You must be lying.” They’re standing in the wrong place, so they don’t know.

So when you realize that you’re not to where the path can take you yet, but you’re on the way, have confidence in your skillful qualities, confidence in your skillful states of mind, because that’s what the Buddha’s asking you to do. We place our confidence in him, but what does that mean? That we place confidence in actually trying to develop skillful qualities. You work on your mindfulness. You work on the principles of right effort. If you recognize that if anything unskillful is in the mind, you try to get rid of it. If it’s not there yet, you try to prevent it. Replace it with skillful attitudes. If they’re weak, you try to make them strong. If they’re strong, you try to make them stronger. And the Buddha’s saying you can depend on that. Depend on those qualities of the mind.

So when you’re afraid of having to let go of things, ask yourself, “Well, what actually am I letting go of?” The Buddha’s asking you only to let go of unskillful mental states, the ones that have deceived you for so long, offered you promises and then, when the things they promise don’t come about, they disappear. Your defilements are very irresponsible—not only socially irresponsible to others, they’re not even responsible to you. They throw a few scraps at you to make you think that, Yes, you can trust them. But when things get tough, they run away.

This is what it comes down to: Which qualities in your mind can you trust? Have you had enough of being what Ajaan Mun said—“the laughingstock of the defilements”? They get you to do tricks, thinking that you’re going to get something out of it. But then there’s nothing—and then they get you to do the same tricks over and over, again and again. For how long? The Buddha says it’s inconceivable how long we’ve been falling for their deceits.

So when the question comes about having to let go, ask yourself: What are you really letting go, when you let go in line with the Buddha’s teachings? You’re letting go of your trust in your unskillful qualities. You’re trying to learn to develop some trust for skillful qualities, in what they can do for you. Now, you may have been disappointed in the past, seeing that your efforts to follow the path haven’t gotten you the safety you want yet. But you have to ask yourself: Which direction do you want to go? Do you want to go back to trusting greed, aversion, and delusion?

Have you put in a serious effort to figure out, “If there’s an obstacle in the path, how do I get around it?” The people who keep stopping on the path because they run into obstacles, and then say that the path is no good, haven’t given their all to the practice. The Buddha does demand that you make an effort, even at times when you don’t feel up for the effort.

But if you can develop a quality of stick-to-itiveness, you’ll learn to see your defilements not as your friends, but as your enemies. Ajaan Suwat made that comment one time: We have this problem. We think that craving is our friend, pain is our enemy. We’ve got to change our allegiance. See pain as our friend, because we’re going to learn from it. If you really study it carefully, it’s going to reveal all kinds of things in the mind. See craving as your enemy, an enemy of the worst kind: the enemy that pretends to be your friend to lead you on, and then seems to find satisfaction in fooling you.

So when there are things in the world that the practice requires you to give up, ask yourself, “Is it actually the thing outside that I’m giving up, or is it a quality of the mind? And what quality of the mind am I being asked to give up?” You’ll find that the Buddha never asked you to give up anything that’s really good.

The whole path is made of good things, good skills. You put them down only when they’ve delivered you to the best thing they can provide and you really have no need for them anymore. They’re like the true friends who’ve taken you to the ultimate happiness, so ultimate that you don’t even need them anymore. Try to have some trust in them.

The Buddha himself found that by having trust in his own good qualities, they could take him far. And it wasn’t just him. He set out a good example. There were people that he would try to teach, who he was willing to teach, but they kept rejecting what he had to say. Don’t be one of those people. He’d found the greatest happiness, and there were people who said, “No, doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t like it.” He had to put up with an awful lot as a teacher.

**So, when you find yourself putting up with an awful lot on the path, one, try to dis-identify with the attitudes that create the obstacles. Learn how to let them go. And two, have some trust in your own good qualities—in your potential to develop them and in their potential to take you to total freedom. **