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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Posts from — April 2016

Let It Go, Let It Come

Let It Go, Let It Come

Popular wisdom advises us to “go for the gusto,” and in the pursuit of happiness, which it mistakes for this or that arrangement of outer conditions, to “make it happen.” This exaltation of the will may be one of the greatest errors of modern thinking, one that flies in the face of centuries-old wisdom that instructs us to release our will and let things happen. It is an odd idea to the mind steeped in traditionally Western assumptions that have led to “taming” nature (think deforestation, the ozone layer, frac sand mining, etc.), splitting the atom (was that a good idea?), so-called Manifest Destiny, “globalization,” and the invasion, conquest, and exploitation of whole cultures whose only inferiority to our own was military. Those who assume it is our place to exert and impose our will are likely to hear any suggestion to let go of willfulness in favor of allowing things to unfold and find their level as an invitation to passivity, even sloth—one of the seven “deadly sins,” and our natural reaction—or what seems to us natural—is one of aversion.

It hardly occurs to us that the whole universe got here, and at least for the time being, is moving in its course, without our managing things, without our agendas, timetables, and strategies. We did not create the Earth or set it spinning in the void of space or set the clock of the seasons or the rhythm of the rolling tides. Indeed, the arrival of modern humankind on the great geological timeline took place only the barest fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second ago, and the opaque, driven infatuation with our will made its appearance even more recently. Whatever creative and organizing principle has been operating since time and space first “banged” hardly could be called passive, yet nowhere in the cosmos do we see the slightest evidence of anything resembling the exertions and presumptions of human will.

Moreover, while the universe in its natural state is beautiful—wild, sometimes violent, madly prolific, yes, but beautiful nonetheless—willfulness is flat-out ugly. There is nothing graceful or elegant or attractive about it. On the contrary, willful personalities are off-putting. Full of themselves, they lack empathy and the willingness or ability to listen to others. They are grandiose, constricted, and overbearing. The more willful a person is, the more complacent and strident he becomes, until his very presence seems to crowd out those around him. One can see it in almost any political debate these days. Willfulness, fully entrenched, is always absolutely right and anyone who disagrees absolutely wrong, and in this, there is nothing even remotely appealing. One can only imagine how it looks to the world, when a nation will not stop willfully declaring its greatness, or when the poster child for this sort of arrested development (around age two, cultivation of the will is a good and necessary stage) is a U.S. Presidential frontrunner.

Beyond aesthetics, willfulness can become dangerous, even deadly. It contains within itself the means and mentality to despoil whole ecosystems, even while our best scientific minds are telling us that the very survival of our planet is in jeopardy. Willfulness drops bombs on hospitals, because it lacks the essential humility to acknowledge its own capacity for error. It pursues the development of weapons that can kill entire cities, never considering whether a thing that can be done should be done, or what the longterm consequences of doing it may be. It walks explosive vests into nightclubs and flies commercial airliners into office buildings. Myopic, awash in hubris, it has no idea that there is a principle operating in the world that rewards the willful use of force with unpredictable and unwanted results.

If passivity were the only alternative to “making it happen,” then willfulness might have a case. But it isn’t. There is another, much overlooked third possibility, one in which we, recognizing the limits of our will and having learned the painful lessons of what happens when we force situations or timings, step back and give things room to resolve, while we remain alert and responsive, open to creative solutions and directions—not passively, never passively—neither laying back nor marching blindly into battle but engaging through willingness. A pause is a powerful thing. In an argument, it can break a spiral of escalating resentment and reaction. If one will simply stop and take a breath, stop and disengage the will, something new can show itself. Letting go is often the first step in letting something come.

It is a beautiful thing when what we want comes to us. Whether this takes the form of a spontaneously reciprocal love interest, good fortune in business, or civilized international relations, the unfolding of events is so much more satisfying when we have abandoned the role of the pursuer, the hunter, the one who “makes it happen” and let the thing we want come to us. In his commentary on Patanjali’s Yogasutras, Satchitananda talks about this in terms of the siddhis—the powers that the yogi inherits on the path of yoga. These powers, Satchitananda states, should not be the reason for spiritual study or practice, which is never self-aggrandizing. He then raises the question of why Patanjali even mentions them. Wouldn’t it be better to have left them out, and let the yogi discover them on his own? Satchitananda goes on to explain that the siddhis are beautiful—if the yogi lets them come by themselves at the right time. The instruction is clear: A good thing, when it is pursued, becomes untimely and a disadvantage. Conversely, even an adverse situation met with willingness can be instructional and beautiful. Socrates says essentially the same thing in the Republic. Happiness, then, is not just an arrangement of outer conditions but a state of order, balance, and harmony in the soul, made effective by release of the will, a state without which even good things fall from our hands, and with which, even “bad” things improve our lot. How well we live, it seems, is determined not only by the path we’re on, but by how we walk the path.

The release of the will is an experiment worth making. Perhaps there’s something you’ve been wanting, doing all you could to “make it happen,” pursuing, pushing, working every angle, all from within an exhausting state of preoccupation. Why not see what happens if you release your will, take a breath and a step back, disengage, and allow room for what you want to come to you? Not pushing does not mean adopting a passive stance. When we let something go, we go about living our life. We don’t sit around waiting for the thing to come to us, which would be passive. Such passivity is just as willful as trying to force outcomes; it is simply willfulness sitting quietly in a chair with its hands folded. Getting busy with other things helps. Staying alert and responsive in the grand experiment of “letting it come” doesn’t mean watching the pot. It means more than anything else, resting in the confidence that when life knocks at your door, you’ll be there to open it—self-possessed, beautiful in willingness, and ready to be pleasantly surprised.

April 30, 2016   Comments Off on Let It Go, Let It Come