Moving Forward, Letting Go

When I was seventeen, and a senior in high school, I began writing the letter that my family sent out to friends and family every Christmas. I was just learning how to write—and excited about it!—and I thought that it was a privilege to be the voice that spoke for the family. For the last ten years I have continued to write this letter, and have continued, more or less, to consider it a privilege. Though this letter is sent to so many people that are important to me, in recent years I’ve also wondered what it means to write for the friends of my parents that I’ve never met. I’ve wondered what it means that I am not also writing this letter to my own friends. 

I didn’t write the letter this year. (My father seemed happy enough to take over.) I imagined, instead, that I would write on my own behalf. Of course, this didn’t happen. The last few weeks of the semester were busy and stressful, and while the first two weeks of my vacation were less stressful, they were not much less busy. On New Year’s Day, and over the past week, I’ve had some time to sit with myself and reflect on what the past year has brought, and what I want to do moving forward.

As happy as I’ve been with my first few months of graduate school, I ended the term looking forward to having a few weeks to stop and re-collect myself. I felt like I’d made so many mistakes and bad habits over the course of the semester, which had compounded to the point that I could no longer see how to address them, how they all fit together. This is a feeling I’m familiar with: after every college term I came home feeling that I needed to throw out all these mistakes and bad habits in order to gain a sense of freedom, the possibility of a new start. 

In the four years that I have been out of school, I’ve been lucky to glimpse that sense of freedom, even to live with it for periods of time. With mindfulness meditation I’ve begun learning how to watch these anxieties—the need to keep working, to say something, etc.—and to let them go. I’m learning that every moment can be an opportunity to let go and start anew. (This is the fundamental truth of mindfulness practice: that every breath—every moment—is both it’s own end and it’s own beginning.) Over the course of this semester I have been continually reminding myself to sit, and to breathe.

Much of my anxiety still comes from this feeling of too much, of not being able to see. Meditation practice has brought me more clarity, and a better ability to let go of the things that unnecessarily complicate my life and thoughts. The glimpses that I’ve had of this freedom have felt like a promise of equanimity: of a mind so clear and so focused that all things can be seen as equal, as one. But over the past few years I have wanted this clarity so much that I have failed to see how much I am really—still—struggling.

As I’ve learned to let go, I’ve become attached to the very idea of letting things go. In the face of too much, I’ve been dreaming of an ultimate simplicity, of a perfect, safe, emptiness. I’ve been dreaming that meditation might be the only thing I need to be happy.  I thought that detaching from my fears meant that these fears would go away, but I’ve been holding so tightly to these moments of clarity that I have only become more frustrated, more scared, as my fears continue to arise. 

When I first learned Buddhism’s four noble truths—the truth of suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path towards the cessation of suffering—I also failed to to grasp it’s essential paradox. Yes, there is a way to escape life’s suffering, but the only way to do so is to accept that this suffering is, fundamentally, in-escapable.

As I start the new year, and a new semester, I want to remind myself that I practice awareness not to control my experiences, but to accept them—to see and acknowledge not only the times when I am happy, but the times when I am afraid, and lonely—not to sublimate my fears, but to live with them more fully. I want to remind myself that equanimity does not mean simplicity or consistency. Real equanimity exists only when there is a diversity of experiences. Real equanimity exists only when there is a diversity of people: of bodies, of beliefs, of language, of dreams. As unfamiliar, and inconsistent, and unknowable—and scary—as this world can sometimes be, this is where I know I want to be. 

With hope,

Brent