Late one night, a man walked along a mountain path when he slipped, tumbling down the side. Frantically reaching out, he suddenly grabbed hold of a tree branch, his legs dangling in the air. So dark was the night he couldn’t see anything around him.
“If I let go of this branch, I will fall into a deep ravine and die,” he thought to himself. He held on for dear life. As time passed, his arms ached and grew tired. Slowly, his grip began to weaken. “I will surely die,” he thought.
Just as he began to lose his grip, the morning sun suddenly peeked over the horizon, shining its light on the man. Looking down below, he saw the ground was a mere six inches beneath his feet. He let go and found himself safely standing.
This parable tells us how suffering, worry, fear and anxiety are often caused by ignorance and attachment to our beliefs. Not seeing clearly leads us astray. We may feel certain and confident in our view of the world, which makes it hard to let go. Sometimes, only when forced will we let go.
I had a cat once that taught me such a lesson. A bump appeared on her back so off to the veterinarian we went. It was a tumor. I hid medicine in kitty treats and food. She grew thin and ate little. I served her favorite foods; tuna, dry food, canned food, pieces of meat. All the little dishes around her water bowl looked like a fancy Japanese kaiseki meal. She refused to eat.
She looked dehydrated. Holding her, I used a toy squirt gun to shoot water in her mouth. She absolutely hated it and pulled away. I suddenly realized her body was shutting down, that she was dying, that there was nothing I could do. It was nature’s way of transition. I had no choice but to let go. A short time later, she died.
A month later, I found myself at my brother’s bedside. He was dying of cancer. He had grown thin and ate little. I encouraged him to eat, a few pieces of meat, fruit, even just jello. I read aloud the hospital’s daily menu, noting his favorites, hoping it would appeal to him. He refused to eat. I insisted, “At least a little juice!”
Then I remembered my cat. I let go. A short time later, he passed away.
We all face challenges in life when we face the challenge of letting go: for instance in relationships, jobs, health, aging and death.
The Buddha constantly reminded people that we live in a world of impermanence, that our lives are interdependent with many things, that we can’t control the universe; rather our lives are the result of the universe’s power. Yet we seek permanence and hold onto beliefs in our power and views. Until we let go.
Shinran Shonin once asked his disciples: “Does dawn break, then the sun appears? Or does the sun appear, then dawn breaks?” He explained it’s important to know the sun appears first.
The sun represents the light of wisdom; darkness represents ignorance, he said. Wisdom’s light begins shining in understanding, dispelling the darkness of ignorance.
Letting go is not a bad thing. When we do, we find ourselves standing on solid ground. Anxieties fade, a quiet calm returns. Life still is both happy and sad. That we know makes us human.