A half-gallon of curdled milk, a partially eaten veggie wrap, a petrified orange, a plastic bag filled with dark green cucumber slime. These are the relics of a previous life I cleared out of my mother’s refrigerator last Memorial Day weekend. Under normal circumstances, my practical and frugal Depression-era mother would never leave edible food to fester in her fridge. In mid-March everything changed. On a fragrant, Alabama spring day while watering her beloved pansies, she lost balance, fell and fractured her pelvis. She has not yet returned to her home.
A consistent walker for most of her life, my mother can no longer negotiate the fifteen precipitous steps leading to her front door. Four stacks of unopened mail—minus important bills which my sister has culled from the piles-—cover her dining room table. A pencil sketch rests on her easel, awaiting her watercolor brush to bring it to life. A grocery list sits on her kitchen counter. In a single instant a daily routine honed through years of living vanished.
In the wake of her accident, my mother is gradually defining a new model for her day-to-day life. Recasting a life that shifted so abruptly is not easy for an 85-year-old person. In my mother I now see a stubborn resistance to the change her circumstances have wrought. During my visit I heard wistful, wry reminiscences of her former vitality. I heard frustrated speeches against aging. An unspoken uncertainty colored our conversations. She did not speak about what her life might look like in a month or a year, but I knew she was wondering.
When we experience a loss, whether it be the loss of a friend or family member, a loss of a job, a change in our health, or the end of a way of life, it is natural to mourn. It is nearly impossible not to wonder how much easier or better our lives might be had our circumstances continued as usual. But the reality of living is that our lives change constantly. Without loss it would be impossible to grow. It is letting go of the old, that which is no longer needed, that makes room in our lives for whatever is to come.
Since the 1920s my mother has let go of a lot. A lifelong artist, my mother began her career before entering grade school, copying renderings of caricatures she found in books. During grade school she drew paper dolls for herself and her friends. In high school and college she gave up paper dolls for figure drawing. Later on, this art form would evolve into a career as a fashion artist for an upscale Cincinnati department store. Still later, she would give up her career in commercial art to return to drawing paper dolls for her three daughters, and to design and paint sets and costumes for school plays. Finally, as she released us into the world, her art would blossom, evolving from tightly representational oil paintings to fluidly rendered, award-winning watercolor studies of shadow and light. She can no more easily return to copying caricatures than she can return to her childhood body.
Our very lives are a continuum of receiving, releasing, receiving and releasing. Thousands of times each day our bodies naturally draw in and release the breath. When we inhale we receive the vital oxygen that enlivens all the cells of our bodies. When we exhale we expel toxic waste in the form of carbon dioxide. What would happen to our bodies if we only inhaled? What if we chose only to accumulate and never to let go?
When Chogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, spoke in Salt Lake several years ago, he made a statement that has stayed with me. He said, “Freedom does not come from acquisition. It comes from letting go.” In the same way the long since perished vegetables in our refrigerator occupy space that could be filled with fresh, vital foods, the habits we grasp onto for security stultify us. We can not move forward in our lives when we cling to the past. When we set our habits, our beliefs and our ways of living in concrete, we become trapped by them. Letting go of what is no longer appropriate in our lives releases us to all possibilities.
No matter how affectionately we might recall our youth, would we really want to go back? Early in my yoga study, I practiced intensely and attained the strength, flexibility and technique required to accomplish many of the most advanced yogasanas. Twenty years later, even though I might fondly remember those times of physical accomplishment, would I really want to return? What I have let go in terms of extreme practice has made room for a more mature, more satisfying awareness of the subtle energies that govern my body’s essential vitality. As a result my practice has gained integrity, and my body has become stronger and more balanced.
As we live and grow, our understanding becomes more refined. Out of the process of continual drawing in and letting go, compassion and wisdom grow. Compassion grows as we experience the sadness that often accompanies letting go. As we come to peace with the reality and rhythm of constant change, wisdom grows. Each forward step on our life ’s path requires us to let go of what is past. The process of living rests in the delicate balance between letting go and starting anew.
Recently as I looked at an ancient black-and-white photo of my mother at age five, I saw that while she is still the same person, she is also different. The same body that animated her spirit as a child carries that spirit today. But in many ways it is not the same body. In the past 80 years that five-year-old frame has grown to adulthood and borne three daughters. Her black hair has turned white, her skin has loosened, her gait has slowed. But I have seen the wise and determined visage of the child in that photograph a thousand times, throughout my mother’s life. The spirit that lives in that completely remodeled body remains intact.
When the young prince, Siddhartha, first ventured out of his gilded palace as a youth, he was faced with what are called the Four Heavenly Messengers. These messengers – old age, sickness, death and a wandering monk seeking awakening – called the future Buddha to his destiny as an enlightened teacher. In him the question arose, if our bodies are all subject to old age, sickness and death, where is happiness to be found? In his six years of searching, the Buddha found that happiness was available to everyone, when we let go of searching for it in those things that are not permanent, which is everything in our conditioned experience. When we rely on our bodies, our careers, our friends and family to make us happy, we set ourselves up to suffer. Ultimately all must be released.
In 1993, during a period of my life when I had let go of what seemed like the very foundations of my being, I asked my teacher, Pujari, “If there is nothing for me to hang on to, if everything I love will one day leave, what reason is there to stick around?” He answered: “To live your life fully and completely. To follow your path with loving care and mindful awareness, to learn the freedom of letting go. To develop wisdom and compassion in the process.”
This we can do no matter what the condition of our bodies. The same wise spirit that peered out of my mother’s five-year-old body dwells in her at 85. This spirit, her innate awareness, can guide her and help her to find the joy in this current phase of her life. There is no one that does not have the ability to live in joyful awareness. It resides within and without. It becomes available to us when we choose to live our lives mindfully, when we pay careful attention to our lives as they unfold, rather than dwelling in thoughts of how much better our lives used to be, or how much better our lives would be if only we were richer, more attractive, had a better job or relationship, a nicer car or house. The list of ways we find to put off living joyfully right now is infinite.
My hope for my mother, and for all of us playing out our lives in this time, is that we can learn to dance harmoniously with the rhythm of life, the rhythm of drawing in and letting go. It is helpful to reflect on your own life, recalling the things you once enjoyed that have disappeared from your life. When you released worn-out habits or beliefs, what became available to you? How did you grow from your many experiences of letting go? These reflections can help you to meet the multitude of let-go experiences still to come with wisdom and perhaps even a sense of joy and adventure.
Happiness comes from enjoying your life right now. Pay attention. When we live mindfully, even the most mundane tasks of our daily routine can be joyful. When we give our complete attention to the present realities of our lives there is no residue left to cling to when it is time to let go and move on. Being fully present with our daily process of receiving and releasing brings the equanimity that allows us to flow with the cycles of constant change.