The Skillful Art of Embracing It All

My mind: scattered and racing, thanks in part to a whirlwind experience with a beautiful Thai girl, Panida, a serious lack of sleep over the past few days compounded by jet lag, and the chaotic atmosphere outside my hotel: the notorious Nana alley in Bangkok.

nana bangkok

Welcome to the jungle.

Nana – the red light center of Bangkok – is a unique experience. As I stepped out of my small hotel this morning, I was immediately approached by an all-too-friendly lad/lass next door: “Where you go? Come here. My room here. Come suck my dick. I lick your ass.” Ah yes, what lovely things to contemplate in a fragile state of mind.

In spite of this (or perhaps, because of it), I sat sound for 20 minutes last night, and another 20 minutes this morning to meditate. Currently working through the Headspace “Acceptance” sessions, I’ve noticed something particular about the way thought, awareness, and presence seem to work together. It goes like this:

  1. Mind gets distracted on runaway thought train
  2. Become aware of thought train, then instantly
  3. “Return” to presence

With “return” in quotes for good reason. The thought, the awareness, and the return are all “present”, ie the only thing happening in their respective moments. However, my awareness shifts to the presence of my immediate non-thought environment: my body, breath, and the sounds/smells/sensations of the room.

Awareness and Letting Go

Observing this dynamic raised two questions:

First, what is the relationship between awareness and letting go? From my experiences and reflections on these recent meditations, it seems as if the simple act of “becoming aware” of a thought is tantamount to letting it go.

Second, is it right/wise to consider the goal of the meditation to “let go” of thought?

I intuitively know this: the moment I become aware of a thought, it feels as if it let go and I return to a more peaceful state of mind. I will assume that this is a good thing.

So then, what is going on here? Am I “embracing the thought”, “letting it go”, or something else entirely? I sought answers to these questions, and here’s what I found:

Sam Harris

Neuroscientist, author and meditation advocate Sam Harris, in a recent speaking tour to promote his book – Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion – fielded an interesting question during the Q&A:

“I’m a writer, and I spend a lot of time trying to get to the heart of things. But in the end it feels like – if I start meditating, or if I start removing myself from that experience – then I’m removing something of my humanity, and part of who I am as a person. I not only frightens me, but also on an intellectual level, it concerns me. Because I think, ‘Well where am I then, if I get so much out of my thought process?'”

Harris’ response is on point.

It’s a good question, and a common fear that smart people have. People who are identified with having an intellectual life have this concern that, if thinking isn’t the ultimate good of human consciousness – if you’re going to somehow ‘change the game’ – and describe thinking as in any way problematic – even inherently problematic – then it seems to devalue most of what seem to be the good things in their lives.

This is more of a bias that intellectual people have: scientists, readers and writers. That thoughts are captivating, and you want good ones as opposed to boring ones. And many people have careers where the beauty of their thoughts, or the utility of their thoughts, is why they have their careers in the first place.

It all comes back down the same point; there aren’t that many ways to be dissatisfied with this topic. Whether anyone knows it or not, we all want to be free of dilemma in each moment. Most of our thinking presupposes that if we could just think ourselves to some sort of completion, we would have a reason to just be happy now. When you’re thinking about some problem in your life, or something you want to achieve, or something you want to say well – whatever the plan is – you are trying to guide yourself through the uncertainty of each subsequent moment of the future so you can finally just be totally satisfied and at rest, no longer neurotic, and no longer afraid, and no longer judging yourself, and just settle in to the present moment.

Harris describes how we try – and fail – to “outthink” the thinker. No matter how much we believe that “outthinking” is valuable, the present moment is the only place we will be truly happy.

Hearing this moved me closer to the heart of the “awareness – letting go” concept. The writer who asked the question, admittedly, was able to return to the present moment at some point by embracing thought, rather than letting it go. But what’s not clear from his question or Harris’ answer is how the scenario would have played out if he had simply dismissed or let go of the thoughts, and been in the present – or whether there was any difference at all.

Considering this, Harris’ response feels more along the lines of “letting go” of the need to feel some sort of completion through thought.

Embracing thought

I sought further, discovering this article by Bruce Davis, who leads a meditation retreat in Napa. In it, he questions the value of “letting go” in meditation:

The preoccupation with watching and letting go in meditation can easily continue the separation of our small mental stream from the great body of awareness of who we really are. The mental activity of watching and letting go can keep us entertained with the busyness of our ego while keeping us from deeper levels of meditation.

Mindfully watching and letting go can lead to devaluing our thoughts, feelings, the story of our life. When we are told the life passing by our inner screen is only distraction, only clouds covering the large sky of awareness, we can downgrade important parts of who we are. The thoughts and feelings we are watching and hoping will disappear can lose their life force. We can forget there is purpose. In our detached observing and our desire to let everything go, we can be detaching and letting go instead of embracing life.

Dr. Davis presents another way of looking at this question. Our thoughts are part us, and attempting to actively let go of them gives rise to the false idea that they should be severed or ignored. Like Harris, he demonstrates the benefit of being present with our thoughts, but from a different angle: the angle of embracing them completely as essential to letting them go.

This moved me closer to the heart of the matter. Being aware of a thought and recognizing it – acknowledging it – is a way to embrace it. To observe it without reaction or judgement, letting it arise, then letting it go.

Allowing Things to Arise

Seeing the process this way helped explain my experiences somewhat, but it wasn’t until I read an essay on BuddhaNet called Allowing Things to Arise that I fully understood how and why this works:

Before you can let things go, you have to admit them into full consciousness. In meditation, our aim is to skillfully allow the subconscious to arise into consciousness. All the despair, fears, anguish, suppression and anger is allowed to become conscious. There is a tendency in people to hold to very high-minded ideals. We can become very disappointed in ourselves because sometimes we feel we are not as good as we should be or we should not feel angry – all the shoulds and shouldn’ts. Then we create desire to get rid of the bad things – and this desire has a righteous quality. It seems right to get rid of bad thoughts, anger and jealousy because a good person ‘should not be like that’. Thus, we create guilt.

In reflecting on this, we bring into consciousness the desire to become this ideal and the desire to get rid of these bad things. And by doing that, we can let go – so that rather than becoming the perfect person, you let go of that desire. What is left is the pure mind. There is no need to become the perfect person because the pure mind is where perfect people arise and cease.

Reading this, it hit me. What I’d been grappling with was the idea of fully accepting thoughts and emotions. Without which, letting go is not possible. In plain terms this is it:

By accepting our complete experience, we are not attached to it and thus are able to fully let go of it.

Counterintuitive – that embracing and full accepting thoughts is the path to letting them go – but also delightful. It removes the need to constantly strive strive strive for a better state of mind, and realize that it’s already there, under the surface, waiting to be seen and appreciated, rather than gained or achieved. Having these little daily insights makes meditation enjoyable, and cements the the value of maintaining a journal towards recording and benefiting from the experience.

I stepped back outside into the morning bustle of Nana, bombarded from all directions with beckoning calls from street vendors, massage parlor workers and tuk-tuks drivers. Rather than try to block them out, I smiled and took it all in, remembering that Nana – at it’s best, rough around the edges and at worst, utterly revolting – was just another travel experience to embrace.