To him that watches, everything is revealed.
~ Italian proverb
I am very lucky. The room I use as a ‘writing den’ has an amazing view of Hong Kong harbor. As I sit at my desk to write, I can see all the iconic buildings that make up the famous postcard image of the Hong Kong skyline – Central Plaza, the Bank of China Tower, the International Financial Centre and the new International Commercial Centre jutting out from the West Kowloon peninsula. In the distance, I can see Victoria Peak and the mountains which make up the central part of Hong Kong Island. Above the buildings and the mountains, the vast sky stretches out. On a clear day, when the sun is shining on the water, it’s a breathtaking sight. Today, I can see the island but the mountains are shrouded in cloud cover and the sky is grey. Clouds are drifting along and I think it’s going to rain soon. At night, the lights come on, and the show of changing colors and patterns on the buildings is mesmerizing. At Christmas and Chinese New Year, the buildings are decorated with wonderful seasonal lights – green, red and gold.
The most obvious thing about the view, as I sit here day after day, is that it is never the same for long – it changes constantly. Even in the short time I have been writing this little description, the view has changed – the sky has brightened and the clouds seem whiter and have started moving faster. Now, I’m not so sure about the rain. Watching the skyline, it’s easy to see the changes. There is nothing I can do to control the way things are changing; all I can do is observe and enjoy the experience. And if I close my eyes, I can see another kind of landscape, and this one is also continually changing. It’s a landscape of thoughts and feelings, and it’s just as fascinating to watch as the Hong Kong skyline.
Over the years, I have explored all kinds of religious traditions and spiritual practices. Some years ago, I made a habit of visiting a Korean style Zen meditation centre. A large hall was crowded with people meditating and, every week, a few individuals would be chosen for an audience with the Buddhist nun who was the centre’s spiritual advisor. I only got to see her once, but she made a big impression on me and I have never forgotten what she said, simple though it was. She asked if I had a question, and so I asked her how I could keep my mind quiet during meditation. It was raining heavily and there was a thunderstorm at the time, and she just said, ‘now it’s raining. Soon it will be sunny. Everything changes.’ Meditation is nothing special – it’s just being the watcher and becoming very aware of the constant change taking place inside and around ourselves. Some forms of meditation do involve controlling various things – breathing, thinking – but, in its simplest and purest form, it is essentially about letting go and being aware – just watching, being the observer.
You don’t have to do anything special to practice awareness. There’s no need to sit in the lotus position, burn incense, wear a robe and perform any kind of rituals – it’s not a ceremonial thing and it’s not magic. It is just watching the endlessly shifting inner landscape of your mind.
Everything changes. This is obvious, and whenever you look out of your window, you can see the truth of this. Look back over your life – think back a few weeks, a few months, a year or two. So much has changed, hasn’t it? Sit quietly for a few moments and watch your thoughts. They are always changing. Being the observer is just watching the passing clouds, the sunshine, the blue sky, the storms, the rain. Letting go. When you come to fully grasp the truth of this and, importantly, when you come to fully accept it, life changes – it becomes more real, more vital and more wonderful. Being the watcher, the silent observer, is a liberating and life-changing experience.
Letting go means being detached. Imagine you are sitting outside yourself, looking in. The watcher does not make any judgments – don’t say, ‘this thought is good’ or ‘this thought is bad.’ Don’t even try to put labels on your thoughts and feelings. Just try to be present, try to stay aware of your thoughts and feelings as they pass by. Don’t try to change anything. When the rain comes – and it will – watch it, accept it, allow it. Soon it will be over. When the sun comes – and it will – watch it, enjoy it, accept it. Soon it will be gone and something else will come in its place.
Awareness is all about letting things be as they are. When we start off from this place of acceptance, we can become powerful creators of our own reality.
People often say that it’s hard to let go. But it isn’t, really. South American hunters use an ingenious method to trap monkeys. They place heavy jars with wide bottoms and narrow necks, containing sweet smelling nuts, around the jungle. A monkey, attracted by the smell of the nuts, comes along and puts its hand into the jar. Because the neck is so narrow, once it has grasped the nut, its fist is too large to pull out and so, rather than let go of the nut, the monkey just sits there until the hunter comes along and scoops it up. Like the monkey, we hold on – we cling; but the clinging causes pain, and we can let it go as easily as the monkey can let go of his nut and be free once more. It might seem unfamiliar – we’ve been holding on for so long – but it’s not difficult to do.
The key to letting go is to imagine what would happen if all the stuff you think you need wasn’t there. What would happen if you lost your money, your career? Your loved ones? Your health? Would you survive? Could you start again? In fact, wouldn’t it be a relief if some of this stuff just fell away? Wouldn’t it be a relief if it stopped mattering?
Sooner or later, you will lose all of these things. In the end, you will lose your life, so getting used to and fully accepting the impermanence of all things – even life itself – is the key to ending suffering.
I once went to a lecture given by a Buddhist monk. He said, at one point, that the reason monks are so happy is because they think constantly about death and the impermanence of life. There is an old Indian meditation where monks would sit in graveyards and watch corpses as they decomposed. To western people, used to thinking of death as something ‘morbid’ and to be banished to the fringes of society – hospitals, hospices, mortuaries and funeral parlors – the process of a human body returning to the earth from which it came might seem horrible. But it must be a powerful lesson in the impermanence and the fragility of life.
Our lives are in constant motion, and so is everything else. And we try to cling. We try to hold on to our youth, our money, our position, our loved ones. Yet trying to hold on to something which is forever changing is like trying to capture the wind inside a box or tie up water in a brown paper package. As soon as you try to capture that which is always changing, you kill it.
Buddha said he taught only suffering and the end to suffering. Suffering, he said, is the result of clinging. When we become attached to something and try to hold on to it, we feel pain. The end of suffering comes from letting go and, since everything is changing, this is the only sensible thing to do.
Strangely, when you stop clinging and just let go, things tend to work out a lot better. When you’re holding on, you’re actually pushing things away. You’re like a fly in a spider’s web – the more you struggle, the more entangled you become. The truth is that you can’t keep hold of anything – you can only stand in the vast, open space of your life and enjoy the wind rushing against you.
We all know the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs. A poor farmer had a goose which miraculously started to lay eggs made from solid gold. After some time, the farmer decided it would be a good idea to kill the goose and cut it open in order to get hold of all the gold which, he reasoned, must be inside the bird’s body. On cutting open the goose, however, he found nothing and had ended his supply of golden eggs. Presumably, he returned to poverty. Like the poor farmer, perhaps worried the goose might escape or someone might come and steal it, if we hold on, we lose. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘for whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it.’ We need to let go. We need to surrender to the flow of life.
Being the watcher is a practice for daily living and not just for twenty minutes of meditation each morning or evening. As you go through your day, try to stay aware of your thoughts and feelings; don’t label them or judge them and don’t react to them or try to change or control them; just let them be there. You are like the sky – always clear, always blue; your thoughts and feelings are the weather – always changing, shifting, moving. Don’t confuse the sky with the weather. The sky always stays the same – it is always untainted.
You are not your thoughts.
You only lose what you cling to.
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