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Embracing Joy and Sorrow Fearlessly by Letting Go

I recall when I first started studying Buddhism how surprised and unsettled I felt at all the talk of dispassion and letting go. I’ve been one to enjoy life, and to express great passion for many things. When I read that passion lead to suffering because underlying it was a lot of craving and attachment, I adamantly disagreed. My passion for nature, for science, for learning were what made life worth living for me. What would happen if I let go, if passion dissolved into equanimity? For a long time I didn’t even want to explore the possibility.

But you can’t practice mindfulness in general and not see the workings of craving and desire in your life. In the beginning of my practice, I had no problem looking at attachments I had to areas I knew that were creating suffering for me. But little by little, I looked under the hood of the fun stuff of life, and lo and behold I discovered attachments, desire, craving, and dissatisfaction.

As I hiked through the redwoods one day, I was practicing mindfulness and being in the moment. It surprised me how challenging that was since I enjoy the forest so much. I hadn’t realized previously how often my mind wanders of the trail, far away from the trees, into the business of thoughts. I continually brought my attention back to the present, to the trees beside me.

I took in the sweet aroma of pines, listened to the occasional dropping of water onto leaves, and felt the cold air on my skin. I realized in that moment, I had no expectations, no clinging to desired outcomes, no need to be something other than a hiker through the forest. Whatever the trail brought, I observed and enjoyed.

But as I headed back to my car, I felt reluctance bubbling up within me. I turned back to the forest, and found myself directly looking into the attachment I have to the pleasure of being among the redwoods. Already desire to return frustrated those last few minutes of being there I had in the present. I wondered then if it was possible to enjoy anything without the expectation of more, without some clinging to a desired extended outcome?

Buddhists are often accused of avoiding emotions and being indifferent to situations. But that is a misunderstanding, at least from what I have discovered in my own practice. From the very start with mindfulness meditation, I found myself repeatedly and intently, engaging with an emotion far more deeply than I ever had in the past. In fact, my defense mechanism of the past had been to avoid feelings of sorrow, sadness, and anger.

But the mindfulness practice, by its very nature, allows us to sink into the heart of an emotion and get under the layers to see what is really going on, instead of riding on the surface, caught in the story, spun up by our rapid thoughts. Instead of avoiding sadness, trying to move out of it into a happier place, I found myself more often than not, sitting with it, exploring the feeling of the emotion in my body, and letting go of the thoughts that were so crucial in keeping sadness alive.

As I learned to sit with emotions like sadness and anger and experience them more intimately, I also found I let go of the fear of them, and I let go of any expectation about them. In doing that, I found a freedom like I had never experienced before, and equanimity I had read about but thought was impossible.

Once I was able to reach equanimity with sadness and anger through embracing and letting go, I realized I wanted to explore those areas where I feel great pleasure and passion. Immediately, the desire for longevity of those feelings appeared. With the discovery of the desire, I also saw how I clung to the pleasantness of a situation, how I want it to last. How incredibly difficult it is to let go of the expectation of peace.

Eventually, by working with an area I feel safest, the forest, I discovered I could let go of expectation, of desire, and when I did I experienced a greater freedom. Now, I can enjoy the forest fearlessly, because I no longer have those attachments. Joy that comes out of equanimity doesn’t have the heavy weight of happiness with strings attached. Fearless joy is lighter, totally free. Amazingly, there is no fear of it disappearing.

I like the image of the butterfly in the open hand. Even better  are those butterflies that flit from flower to flower. Butterflies are most beautiful when they are free. It’s a wonderful metaphor for me to remember when I find craving or attachment underlying something I  enjoy. Can I recognize the cause of that craving, then let go of the craving, and hence enjoy it a free manner,with equanimity?

I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve that in all areas of life, but in the places I have totally let go, I noticed that I embrace with abandon, fearlessly and tirelessly.

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  1. Quiet Contemplation on August 13, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Very well explained. Thanks for writing and sharing this.

  2. […] Embracing Joy and Sorrow Fearlessly by Letting Go […]

  3. Mariehtp on July 19, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Hi Dana, you wrote that article quite a while ago, but I am new to SBA so I am just discovering it.
    It clarified, at least intellectually, the concept of non-attachment toward things I love. I do understand the logic and the benefits of managing those cravings.
    But here is where I get lost:
    Desire is a huge part of the reason why we do a lot of what we do. Including reproduce. But even if we drop the biological factors… getting up in the morning is driven by the desire to earn money. Or, if you are lucky, to do something we really want to do, such as going to the Forest, writing, painting, dancing, gardening, meeting a friend, etc.
    What makes you go to the Forest in the first place, if not the desire to be there?
    And then there is the attraction that drives us to people when reproduction is not at stake. When one loves, one doesn’t want to be away from the beloved. How do you avoid longing?
    I understand that in an ideal world, love would also always be distinct from craving and attachment. That would extract the poison out of love. Through MBSR, I have been trying for a while to gain that kind of control over my emotions. I have been pretty successful with anger, and with a good deal of my fears. I am even making progress with compassion. Love/attachment though is not budging. It is still as poisonous as it as always been. I was wondering if there is any particular meditation that would help. Thanks. M.

  4. Dana Nourie on July 19, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Hi Marie, and welcome to SBA!

    Let me address desire first. The kind of desire that we need to let go of is the kind that causes us suffering. Easier said than done. So, if you desire foods that are bad for you or going to create guilt, that is the desire we need to let go of.

    The are other types of desire as you mentioned, and for this we need to hold it loosely. I am passionate about many things from science to programming to enjoying my family and pets. We may also have desire to be better people, to help others, to lose weight or eat in healthier ways. These are not going to cause you or others suffering. We just have to be cautious that we are not clinging to desire or outcomes, because that can cause you suffering.

    If you have a desire for one person, a significant other, to meet all your needs, it’s going to be hard on the other person, and ultimately you will create suffering for both of you.

    So, when you investigate your desires, ask if this particular desire is going to cause you or others suffering. Also just notice if you are putting a lot energy into what you want the outcome to be, because you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. We are also always going to have desire for food and water, to be safe, to be happy. Just examine what those desires feel like compared to if you are wanting a raise, and are clinging to the outcome. How does it make you feel?

    Desire is fine. It drives us to function well in society. But if we get caught in clinging or clinging to desired outcomes, then we may be piling suffering onto ourselves. In reading Buddhist text, I do think Buddha is trying to tell us to eliminate all desire. I don’t agree with that.

    There are some areas in my life where I do cling and I know it will cause me suffering. I have very strong attachments to my wonderful companion Cannon, and my daughter’s two pups who I also take care of during the day. I am aware that when the day comes that Cannon’s time is up, I’m going to suffer and grieve. I am mindful of my attachment, and I try to love with the understanding that one day I will lose him.

    I am skeptical that we can reach a state with no clinging or attachments. I have successfully dropped some clinging, and when something new and wonderful enters my life, I am aware when I’m clinging and when I’m enjoying without clinging. It takes a lot of mindfulness and self examination, but I believe I handle rejection and loss better because of my practice than I would without it.

    The only meditation I practice is mindful meditation. Occasionally I’ll try concentration meditation. Both of those help you learn the skill of inward observation that helps you discern in daily life when you are clinging and when you are enjoying something without attachment.

  5. Mariehtp on July 21, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    Thank you Dana. Maybe Buddha taught non-clinging for everything because love/attachment always comes with the risk of a loss. If we go back to your example of your love for the Forest, it only caused you suffering when you had to leave it. Because you always wanted more. That is valid for all we enjoy. Things and people. Isn’t it? It is not only clinging to bad stuff that causes Dukkha. It’s clinging to anything. It seems that wanting to relate to others, wanting to have something, wanting to do something, the moment we want something there is dukkha when we don’t get it, and there is dukkha when we get it because we want more. And I am not counting the basic needs of course.
    Maybe the Buddha was just saying don’t cling to anything/anyone because all is impermanent, and clinging is a denial of that impermanence.
    I’d agree with that. But that is so hard to achieve in a single life span, that he had bring in rebirth. So without rebirth, we are in a pickle, aren’t we?

    • mufi on July 22, 2013 at 7:49 am

      Marie: …that is so hard to achieve in a single life span, that he had bring in rebirth. So without rebirth, we are in a pickle, aren’t we?

      Perhaps, but surely life expectancy (not to mention other metrics of well-being and/or economic development) would have some bearing on our prospects for achieving spiritual growth. For example, consider this factoid:

      In ancient Greece and Rome the average life expectancy was about 28 years; in the early 21st century life expectancy averaged about 78 years in most industrialized countries. In countries with a high rate of HIV infection, however, the average life expectancy was as low as 33 years.

      I’m not sure what the average life expectancy was in India during the Buddha’s time (e.g. 5th century BCE), but if we assume that it was comparable to that of ancient Greece and Rome (bearing in mind that “average” allows for some extreme outlier cases), then we’re talking about relatively short lives, compared to most residents of modern industrialized countries.

      I’ll just mention one other relevant factor here: leisure time. For example, I’ve read that the French enjoy significantly more of it than do North Americans (and, within N. America, Canadians enjoy more of it than do USA citizens). What if we all enjoyed a lot more leisure time, but instead of spending so much of it on mindless consumption, we instead spent it on more mindful activities (meditation, charitable work, etc.)?

      When seen in this light, we may begin to recognize that the dilemma between material & spiritual pursuits is somewhat of a false one – that the two pursuits may actually depend on one another.

      • mufi on July 22, 2013 at 8:27 am

        PS: This side point about the implications of socioeconomic development for Buddhist practitioners seems related to this thread re: what early/Pali Buddhism has to say about a householder’s (as opposed to a monastic’s) prospects for making progress along the dharma path.

  6. Dana Nourie on July 21, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    No, I don’t see rebirth as an option. But I agree as human beings, we can’t prevent having some attachment in our lives. There are, however, many areas where we can, and we can enjoy things without attachment. It’s takes a lot of mindfulness and patience. I do know I suffer less than I used to. Death will end all attachments. Until then we do what we can to lessen our suffering.

  7. Mark Knickelbine on July 22, 2013 at 11:33 am

    Marie, you wrote: “Love/attachment though is not budging. It is still as poisonous as it as always been. I was wondering if there is any particular meditation that would help.”

    In this regard, metta meditation has been an enormous help to me. It is an investigation that has unfolded over the course of years, but it keeps revealing all kinds of insights. One of the first was about how what I’d call real love is blended into all kinds of other emotions — grasping, grief, anger,even fear. Over time, I learned how to recognize in my body how these various sensations come together to produce the manifestations of love we typically experience. The very beautiful realization is that the true heart connection of love is available to us much more than we expect, and with practice we can tease it out of all kinds of emotional experience and recognize its presence. It can be a very challenging practice but I found that once I got a taste of that pure joy it is powerful incentive to continue.

    • Mariehtp on July 24, 2013 at 7:55 pm

      Thank you all.
      Dana, I don’t believe in rebirth either. I was just remarking that it would be easier if I did. I have often thought that way about God. I am an Agnostic turning Atheist (I guess that still makes me an Agnostic… right?) but I have often thought that it would be easier if I believed in God. One answer fit all questions 🙂

      Mark, that is very helpful. I actually went on to read the Metta Sutta. But could you please tell me more about Metta meditation? I have listened to your Loving-Kindness Meditation audio. I find it excruciatingly difficult to do. Not because of you. You are very clear, well paced etc. But it just doesn’t seem to resonate. When I am supposed to think of someone I love, and observe how I feel, I totally freeze and don’t feel a thing, which is, as you can imagine, very upsetting. I guess I should just rest in that lack of feeling and keep going.
      Anyway, you seem to describe a very profound experience, and a deep observation of “love”, layer after layer. How did you do that? If I may ask.

      • Mark Knickelbine on July 25, 2013 at 8:05 am

        Marie –

        Thanks for listening to my guided meditation! As I said, metta can be a very challenging practice, especially when we want and expect to experience loving feelings and instead appear to feel nothing. Some suggestions, if I may:

        Remember that the point of metta is not what you feel. The practice is one of setting our intention to open our hearts toward others and ourselves. When judgements arise about not feeling the way you think you should, observe them, accept that they’re there, and then see if you can let them go (that should sound familiar from MBSR).

        Also, it’s not important to conform to the instructions of formal metta practice. Whatever works for you to connect with your heart is ok. Some things you might try:

        – Place your hand gently on your heart as a gesture of connection
        – Start by imagining someone you truly love or have loved. Anybody will do — might be a grandparent, parent or other relative; your child or spouse; a friend or lover; a teacher or benefactor. Could also be a pet, perhaps one you had in childhood, or other animal. If no one comes to mind, perhaps imagine someone who represents unconditional love to you. And if you still cant think of anyone, imagine someone who could offer you love.
        – Perhaps recall a situation that made your heart open: hearing the news of a tragedy, or being grateful for some good news, grief at the loss of a loved one. Trying not to get hung up on the story, but just visualizing the details and observing what arises in your heart and body.
        – Don’t worry about the formal metta phrases or the various stages. Just see if you can bring that person into your imagination as vividly as possible. Imagine they are sitting right in front of you; see their eyes, see them smiling at you with tenderness and affection. Perhaps remember a time when you felt that person’s love for you, recalling the moment in as much detail as you can.
        – As you visualize this person, notice whatever is going on in your mind or body, especially in the region of your heart center. You might feel openness, maybe warmth or some other sensation; you might feel tightening or a sense of guardedness; you might even feel sharp, painful feelings; or you might feel nothing at all. Just notice, and honor your own experience, whatever it is.
        – Use your breath to help you bring your awareness into the center of your chest. And if you do notice a sensation of warmth or openness, breathe into it. If it helps, imagine your breathing nourishes the sensation, just as if you were blowing gently on a glowing coal.

        If this is all you do, you’re doing great. Just the act of using your imagination to connect with another will build your capacity to experience that connectiveness. Pay attention as carefully as you can to whatever you feel. Does it move? Does it change? The more you practice this, the more you will come to appreciate how the sensations of emotion express the body’s wisdom.

        Keep at it. If you sit daily, you might set aside the last five minutes of your sit just for this practice. Commit to this for two weeks, and see if anything changes in that time.

        Another thing you might try is what I call “metta on the fly.” If in your daily life you experience a feeling of love or connection — maybe you see something heartrending on the news, or you’re touched by a movie or a book — see if it’s possible to pause and examine that feeling with mindfulness. Close your eyes and breathe into it. Observe it rise, change, and fade.

        Above all, remember to honor yourself for setting this right intention. Metta is not another chance to judge ourselves harshly, but to offer ourselves compassion and kindness. If you notice resistance arising, perhaps reflect that the joy of an open heart is our birthright as human beings. Gotama said, “You can search the fourfold universe and find no being more deserving of love than you yourself.”

        I hope this is helpful, Marie. May you be truly happy and deeply peaceful, and know the joy of a heart full of loving kindness!

        • Mariehtp on July 25, 2013 at 7:09 pm

          Thank you Mark for taking the time for such a thorough and thoughtful response. I will apply myself to that practice. I am a dedicated but not very good meditator__Not a judgement. Just an observation:) So it may take a while.

          Actually I also listened to your Podcast. That totally resonated with me.

          You’ll probably hear from me soon because I am reading and listening to this entire website, and I just downloaded In the Buddha’s Words, and What the Buddha Taught, which I am reading now.

          Thanks again for this, and for this wonderful website.

          • Mark Knickelbine on July 26, 2013 at 7:49 am

            No problem, Marie — I am grateful that SBA gives me an opportunity to share this practice with others.

            If you haven’t seen it yet, you might be interested in this article I wrote on the topic: https://secularbuddhism.org/?p=6089



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