The Tyranny of Letting Go


“Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.” ~ Thich Naht Hanh

“Our practice is to accept ourselves without any expectation that we will be any different.”  ~Joanne Friday

Dear Friends,

Has anyone ever told you that “you need to let go,” or to “get over it?” How did that advice land in your body and your mind? It does depend on who the advice is coming from, the tone and the timing, but for many folks, those helpful words are anything but helpful. There is a tacit understanding in that message to let go of, or get over a situation, that the person who is suffering from a repetitive thought or difficult feeling, is not doing a very efficient job of processing these thoughts or the event. While in Buddhism, we understand the truth of creating our own mind states, uttering these words to someone who is not ready to receive them is not what the Buddha thought of as wise speech. This is advice that often cannot be utilized by the recipient. Often, this urging to let go of, or get over a problem, stems from the hearer’s inability to bear another’s suffering. We all have a right to our suffering and to the way out of our suffering. There is an unexamined inclination to use a “one size fits all” approach with the hope that this reminder will speed things up—and escape our own, or another’s pain.

 For some, the idea of changing the thought, or non-identification with a painful thought, is enough to release from grief or sorrow, but for many others it is not. In my experience, hearing the admonishment to “let go,” my problem quadruples. From my original problem, there is a second problem; the suffering I am experiencing is now pointed out as clearly my fault. The third problem is that my unskillful thinking is burdensome to the person who mentioned it and the fourth, is that I can’t just let it go-or I would have done so. My stuckness becomes much more of a problem as the original painful thinking. This compounding of problems creates more tension, wrongness, and more suffering. This notion of the basic wrongness of my actions and thoughts may contribute to creating a war myself.

While there is great freedom and happiness when we do let go. Letting go comes about from a process, not via an external or internal wish or desire. Letting go comes from deep looking at the nature of our suffering.  Tibetan Nun, The Venerable, Thubten Chodron, says that we must fully realize the depth of our hurt and suffering and care for our hurt, before we can forgive another. This is also the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh, whose teaching is based on not getting rid of any feelings. “After recognizing the feeling, becoming one with it, calming it down, and releasing it, we can look deeply into its causes, which are often based on inaccurate perceptions.  As soon as we understand the causes and nature of our feelings, they begin to transform themselves.” We learn to accept all states of our being, and tenderly embrace whatever is arising with loving kindness.

Dharma teacher Joanne Friday speaks about, “no expectation that we will ever be any different,” this total acceptance without judgment or blame can create a space where transformation and insight may become possible. It is this paradox of allowing what is not welcome that gives us the permission to be fully present with the pain, the irritation, or sadness that is arising.  Our process may look very different from our friends, but we are all born to experience our unique form of suffering in each of our lives. It is our birthright. We do not need to sweep away our process of suffering and healing, however long it takes, to make ourselves more beautiful and pleasing.

Our suffering and the time we need to fully realize the depth of suffering is as unique as our fingerprint. Often, we create more suffering in our vain attempts to elude our feelings. Spiritual teacher and humanitarian, J. Krisnamurti writes:

This escape is a waste of energy. Not to escape in any form from the ache, the pain of loneliness, the grief, the shock, but to remain completely with the event, with this thing called suffering is that possible? Can we hold any problem hold it and not try to solve it try to look at it as we would hold a precious, exquisite jewel? The very beauty of the jewel is so attractive, so pleasurable that we keep looking at it. In the same way if we could hold our sorrow completely, without a movement of thought or escape, then that very action of not moving away from the fact brings about a total release from that which has caused pain.

We all suffer and heal in our own time. Do not rush through this process. Our pain is the furnace that burns through the impurities to uncover our precious core, our natural goodness that is never damaged, only hidden.

May we all awaken to the kindness in our hearts,



Be beautiful be yourselfcalligraphy by Thich Naht Hanh

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

To Tell The Truth


The Bodhisattva Jizu, or Ksitigarbha, from the Yale Collection

“Someone avoids false speech and abstains from it. He speaks the truth, is devoted to truth, reliable, worthy of confidence, not a deceiver of people.” ~The Buddha

“In the case of words the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.” Abhaya Sutta (MN 58)

“Speak the truth, but not to punish.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh


Dear Friends,

Speak the truth. When the Buddha spoke about right speech, the first component he included was abstaining from false speech. This seems straight forward, as in don’t tell a lie, but then there’s the truth and there’s our subjective truth and maybe there’s the truth the way we would like it to have unfolded. How do we tell the truth?

Another component of right speech is abstaining from harsh speech. The Buddha describes this as using “such words as are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving, such words as go to the heart, and are courteous, friendly, agreeable to many” (AN 10:176) This does not mean the Buddha wanted folks to walk around spouting pleasantries and avoiding being direct, or saying things that may be hard to hear.

The Buddha tells Prince Abhaya that there are three criteria that one must use to decide if something is worth saying. Is the statement true, is it beneficial, and is it rooted in kind speech? A critique that points out damaging ingrained habits may be hard to hear. The Buddha had a sense of what was the right time to deliver criticism that was true and useful, but was not agreeable to the recipient.  The Buddha also told the Prince, if the words were true, endearing, but unbeneficial, I do not say them. This rules out empty praise or flattery that inflates someone else’s ego and perhaps benefits our greed. If the words were true, beneficial, and endearing, there is a sense of timing, knowing when to say them. This is kindness.

Only words that are useful are spoken. We do not ridicule, use sarcasm, or detract from someone to recompense ourselves for a slight. There is no place for words that do not move the speaker and recipient towards the path of true liberation. Everything is done with timing and an eye towards the receptivity of the listener. Is the recipient capable of  taking in this message? When is the optimal time to say the difficult or the unwanted but necessary?

 Societies where there is truth telling and reliability create trusting environments. When the truth becomes covert, subjective to interpretation, and there is confusion and doubt, there is a break in the community. There is no trust. Scholar monk, Bhikku Bhodi writes:

People can live together in society only in an atmosphere of mutual trust, where they have reason to believe that others will speak the truth; by destroying the grounds for trust and inducing mass suspicion, widespread lying becomes the harbinger signaling the fall from social solidarity to chaos. (Bhodi, The noble eightfold path: The way to the end of suffering, p. 27)

When we as a society doubt that others are speaking the truth, we have a problem. Sadly, it appears this describes the time we live in. There is a cloud of diversion, deception, and impenetrability on the political stage. Daily, we hear conflicting news stories and reports that lead to greater doubt and mistrust. Trust is essential to move forward in unity.

Each individual is sovereign over their own dominion of right speech. We may work to instill this virtue in our children, bring compassionate truth telling into our professional and on-line life, but we do not control another’s right or wrong speech. This is out of our jurisdiction. During this time of fuzzy truth and distrust, part of our practice is to remain a beacon of right speech. Our practice calls us to be devoted to truth, reliable, and worthy of confidence. We strive to follow the fourth mindfulness training, “Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope” That is the practice. To continue to use kindness, to grow hope and to be a light of truth shining through the darkness of doubt.

May we all walk in the light of truth,


Buddha's feet

Buddha’s footprints, from the Yale Collection

The Gift of Non-Fear

lilly-and-neko                                               Lilly and Neko napping

“I wouldn’t give a tinker’s damn for a man who isn’t sometimes afraid. Fear’s the spice that makes it interesting to go ahead.”   ~Daniel Boone

“There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more in our imagination than in reality.”  ~Seneca

“Leave a legacy of love, not a legacy of fear.”  ~Shannon L. Adler

If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Would you want to have super strength, be able to walk through walls, or become an investment wizard, and pull some fast cash out of the stock market? My super power wish is for one of the gifts described by the Buddha, it is the gift of non-fear.

For a long while I’ve thought about fear, about how fear contributes to the three poisons, greed, anger (encompassing aversion or hatred) and delusion. I thought fear should be categorized as the fourth poison-or maybe the root of all the poisons. Fear of losing our place contributes to hatred of another, fear of not having enough contributes to greed, and fear of what we will become, or what is really occurring, can contribute to delusion. I wanted to categorize fear as a totally negative trait, something to get rid of, but then I heard a Dharma talk about the goodness of fear.

It was by Sister Yoi Nhgiem at Blue Cliff Monastery. She spoke about fear as our primal protective instinct and how fear kept our ancestors alive. Fear keeps us from stepping into traffic and from eating that overly mature Chinese food in the fridge. I listened and grudgingly accepted that maybe fear had a larger more complicated place in our emotional storehouse. I read a case history of a woman missing her amygdala, the fear center of the brain. She was assaulted at knife point in Central Park and returned the next morning, without any concern for her safety. Fear can be common sense.

The fear that stops us, the fear that keeps us from risking, the fear that keeps us trapped in our beliefs that cause suffering, that is the fear that is an obstacle. The Insight Meditation Society groups fear under the heading of aversion. “Fear is having aversion of something that hasn’t yet happened. (Something imagined, even if likely will still never be just like you imagined…). Being in the body is very important for working with fear” (Insight Meditation Society). Staying in the present moment with body centered practice, breath, or mindful walking is a good way to work with fear, returning over and over to the present moment, appreciating what is safe and at ease right now.

Thây gives us the practice of making a list of our fears. In this practice, we can notice what we can release, what we can recognize as unrealistic, and look deeply at the roots of our fears. What would happen if the thing we are so afraid of comes to pass? Will it make us look bad? Will it affect our finances, or health? Are we resisting something because we doubt our ability to care for ourselves? Can we see that our fears center around keeping us safe? A few years ago, I made a list of my fears from the ridiculous to the ultimate. It became the poem below. Whenever I share this, folks comment that they are afraid of the same things—mostly.

We are all afraid; it is our nature. Courage only exists when there is fear. It is doing what we believe is right, despite being afraid. Developing a familiarity with our fears keeps them from surprising us and stopping us. Making a list and setting aside time to be with our fear is a way of loosening the grip of fear. Recognizing that our fears come from a deep innate desire to care for ourselves can allow us to be more peaceful with fear and to even say, “Hello my fear, thank you for trying to take such good care of me.”




Fears—The Short List

I am afraid of being late.

Also, I have the normal fears of car crashes, war, climate change, genetically modified food, of cancer, aids, and poverty, sickness, old age, death, and public speaking,

not necessarily in that order.

I am afraid of losing my keys,

losing my mind,

losing my hair and discovering it growing in new and unusual places.

I am afraid of doing the wrong thing and saying something stupid.

I am afraid you won’t agree with me—I’m too pushy, or too weak,

and nowhere near smart enough.

I am afraid I’ll be noticed, or worse, I’ll be invisible.

I am afraid of being bitten by a tick, a pit-bull, a snake

or a monkey with an incurable virus.

Aren’t you?

But mostly I’m afraid you won’t like me…or, maybe you’ll like me too much

and send me four emails everyday, which you will expect me to answer—thoughtfully.

I am afraid that everyone I love will die soon and painfully,

While those I find difficult will enjoy unprecedented longevity.

I fear my children will become depressed, drug addicted or

….. (insert political party you do not belong to here).

I am afraid of high cholesterol and getting fat and that I may die

from an overdose of Jarlsberg.

I have the feeling that somewhere in the Universe I’ve left a stove on with a pot of beans

and very little water in it.

Maybe you won’t like my cooking?

Did I leave anything out?

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”  The Dharma teacher in the kitchen asked.

Well, today my answer is this:

I would make myself so still.  I wouldn’t move until I could hear the sound of water turning to blood in my veins and back again to water.

Only then would I put on my son’s old blue bathrobe and parade into the back yard.

I’d lie in the grass, eating chocolate and cheese and wait for the clouds to come by.

“Hey,” I’d wave to each one.

“Do you know me?  I know you. We are made of the same stuff you and I.

I know, because I can hear you singing, unafraid, just beneath my skin.”

~Celia Landman, May, 2014

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Take A Vacation From Certainty: Visit Don’t Know Mind

Awesome fog

The Joy of Being Surprised

“I take my time. I want to be myself. I don’t deny myself in the here and now. This is our practice—we call it aimlessness. We don’t put a goal in front of ourselves and run after it constantly. If we do, we’ll be running all our life and never be happy. Happiness is possible only when you stop running and cherish the present moment and who you are. Who you are is already a wonder; you don’t need to be someone else. You are a wonder of life.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power.

“Attachment to views, attachment to ideas, attachment to perceptions are the biggest obstacle to the truth” ~Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power.

“Knowing is a veneer our minds create and lay over the landscape like a painter’s drop cloth set upon a forest floor. Its uniformity protects us from the pine needles and beetles, but it also obscures them, as well as the soft moss, fragrant soil and teeming complexity of nature’s bed.” ~Gregory Kramer, Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom.
Don’t Know Mind.

In the Zen tradition, there is a state of mind called, Don’t Know Mind, or Beginner’s Mind. Perhaps the most quoted teacher of Beginner’s Mind is Shunryu Suzuki who wrote:

Our “original mind” includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginners mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. (Suzuki)

It is this place of resilience and responsiveness that is part of don’t know mind. Practicing don’t know mind, can be a profound release from falling into certainty and projections about the future formed from attaching to the self (papañca).

Most of us take great efforts to protect ourselves from the feeling of uncertainty or confusion. It is part of our evolutionary neurobiology to seek certainty. We want to know if the world is safe, if there will be challenges. We want to prepare for the snowstorm, the heat wave, the layoff (fill in the blank) and find out all the details to keep ourselves alive, thriving, and as free of suffering as possible. We go to great lengths to ensure that we are not uncomfortable or inconvenienced. The irony of living on Earth, is that if we look deeply and honestly, despite all our efforts to control and conduct, anything can happen, and it usually does. The habit to control and resist the inevitable impermanence of this moment can cause more suffering than actually surrendering to what is beneath it, confusion, fear, uncertainty, resistance or judgement.

To get comfortable with releasing into this moment of potential, Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to ask, “Am I sure?” and if the answer is yes, ask again.  What would it feel like to take a vacation from certainty and relax into this moment of not knowing what will happen next. For most of us, the first experience will be far from relaxing. It can be terrifying to release our tightly gripped future and open to the possibilities. With familiarity, we can relax enough to note, that despite the grasping and planning, events unfold in their own way, without our consent.

This release into unknowing, is what founded of Insight Dialogue, Gregory Kramer, speaks about as Trusting Emergence:

As you let go of plans, you are perched on the edge of possibility. Let the reminder to Trust Emergence arouse curiosity. What is happening now? …Attune to the unfolding moment and let your mind become pliable; let it move with experience. You can’t predict what someone will say, what will happen tomorrow…Dwell in the moment lightly, with patience…Let all plans fall away. Ride the moment. Locate the wisdom in not knowing. This leaves you open to anything, and not fearing change. Trust Emergence. (Kramer)

Beneath the openness, there is a trust in the ability to be with what is arising. There is a relaxing into this moment and believing that we are fully capable of bearing this reality. We are not small and fearful, but heirs to innate goodness and untested strength. As Kramer puts it, relaxing into trust is an exploration of our “habits of distrust.” We can release habitual protections and trust our responses, our ability to be with whatever arises with compassion. This is freedom from the futility of defending against the inevitability of change. Trust that you are enough for your life.

May we all be strong; may we all be at ease and may we all trust ourselves,


Breathe TNH