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Have Your Karma and Eat Cake Too

The central importance of letting go leads to a very important question, "Is it possible to let go and still appreciate and experience life fully?"
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Letting go is one of the most important skills a meditator picks up on her way to enlightenment. Letting go is so important it is one of the essential foundations of meditation practice. As usual, the Zen tradition has the funniest way of articulating this key insight. In the words of the Third Patriarch of Zen, "The Great Way is without difficulty, just cease having preferences". When the mind becomes so free that it is capable of letting go of preferences, the Great Way is no longer difficult.

The central importance of letting go leads to a very important question, "Is it possible to let go and still appreciate and experience life fully?" The way I like to ask the question is, "Can you have your karma and eat cake too?"

I think it is possible to have a mind of letting go and still live life to the fullest. The key is to let go of two things: grasping and aversion. Grasping is when the mind desperately holds on to something and refuses to let it go. Aversion is when the mind desperately keeps something away and refuses to let it come. These two qualities are flip-sides of each other. Grasping and aversion together account for a huge percentage of the suffering we experience, perhaps ninety percent, maybe even a hundred percent.

When we experience any phenomena, we begin with contact between sense organ and object, then sensation and perception arise, and immediately following that grasping and/or aversion arise. (Traditional Buddhism classifies the mind itself as a sense, thus easily extending this model of experience to mental phenomenon as well as physical phenomenon. I myself find it very convenient to use this model; please feel free to do so if it works for you too.) The key insight is that grasping and aversion are separate from sensation and perception. They arise so closely together that we don't normally notice the difference. However, as your Mindfulness practice becomes stronger, you may notice the distinction and maybe even the tiny gap between them. Once your mind reaches that level of resolution, two very important opportunities become available to you.

The first important opportunity is the possibility of experiencing pain without suffering. The theory is that pain is just a sensation, that sensation leads to a strong aversion, and that aversion is the actual cause of suffering. Hence, if the mind recognizes this and then becomes able to let go of aversion, then the experience of pain leads to greatly reduced suffering, perhaps no suffering at all. Jon Kabat-Zinn has a great example of how this theory works in practice in his book, "Full Catastrophe Living". He described the story of a man in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) clinic:

Another man, in his early seventies, came to the clinic with severe pain in his feet. He came to the first class in a wheelchair ... That first day, he told the class that the pain was so bad he just wanted to cut off his feet. He didn't see what meditating could possibly do for him, but things were so bad that he was willing to give anything a try. Everybody felt incredibly sorry for him ... He came to the second class on crutches rather than in the wheelchair. After that he used only a cane. The transition from wheelchair to crutches to cane spoke volumes to us all as we watched him from week to week. He said at the end that the pain hadn't changed much but his attitude towards his pan had changed a lot.

The second important opportunity is the possibility of experiencing pleasure without the after-taste of unsatisfactoriness. The biggest problem with pleasant experiences is that they all eventually cease. The experience itself causes no suffering, but our clinging on to them, our desperate hoping that they don't go away, causes suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh has a very nice way of putting it. He said that wilting flowers do not cause suffering, it is the foolish desire that flowers not wilt that causes suffering. Hence, if the mind recognizes this and then becomes able to let go of grasping, the pleasant experiences lead to little or no suffering. You can fully enjoy flowers even though they eventually wilt.

Thus, by letting go of grasping and aversion, you can fully adopt the letting-go mind and also fully experience life in its glorious technicolor detail. In fact, you may be able to experience life more vividly with the letting-go mind because it frees you from the noisy interferences of grasping, aversion and suffering.

Good karma. Good cake. Yum.

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