Letting it Go

I have been thinking a lot about the Buddha lately, his paradoxical admonishment to avoid both attachments and aversions yet to extend compassion to all living things. It's a tall order to withdraw the steering wheel from love, and switch off the background music of judgment and fear, yet keep on rolling down the road. But there's no doubt the drive friendly approach to life makes the five-o-clock jam, and every other moment one gets stuck, more tolerable.

I recently read of an American-born lama who studied with numerous great teachers in India and Nepal for many years and then returned to the U.S. to teach. Someone asked him what was the most important advice he could give about spiritual practice and he said, "I have one mantra I teach all my students-it's my favorite mantra for my own practice: Let it go, let it go, let it go."

It has also become mine.

One day at lunch my nine-year-old son Cope and I were talking about our favorite songs -- his included precocious picks by the Blacked-eyed Peas and Nirvana and one "about a ladder" I used to sing to him.

One joy I never expected when I became a mother was singing my baby to sleep each night. As we nursed and rocked I dredged up words to old spirituals like "Jacob's Ladder" and "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and nameless camp ditties like "Just a boy and a Girl and a Little Canoe and the Moon Shinin' All Around." My repertoire branched out to include a slow-mo version of "Oh Lord, Won't You Buy Me a Mercedez-Benz?" and I taught myself the words to "Boots of Spanish Leather."  Then suddenly, when Cope was four he rolled towards the wall in the dimness of his room and said: "Mom! Stop singing! I can't stand it any more!"

I was crushed. Had I been torturing him all these years with my unschooled voice? Though I'd never sung in a choir, I thought I could carry a tune if it wasn't too heavy. What other talents was I deluding myself about? I spoke to no one about this.

Now, five years later, the truth unfolded.

"You remember when I sang to you?" I asked, incredulous.

"Oh yeah," he crunched on some chips. "I loved it."

"Then why'd you make me stop?" I demanded.

"Oh, I dunno," he mumbled. "I just needed my space, I guess."

I was admiring the altar my yoga teacher, Keith, keeps in his studio after class the other day. The shelves are cluttered with graceful renditions of Buddha, a bowl of rice, some seasonal autumn leaves, vases of flowers, sometimes a coconut. There are also a few framed photographs. I always feel shy about gazing at them. Despite the public location, my Lutheran blood says an altar is as private as an underwear drawer. Keith pointed out a photo of an older person of indeterminate sex, age, and nationality, in saffron robes. He explained it was Tenzin Palmo, a British-born woman who went to India in the sixties, retreated in a cave for a dozen years in the snowy Himalayas to practice and wrote a book about her experiences. I was delighted to discover a woman lama, having seen dozens of photos of framed little old men in bug-eyed glasses on other altars. I always wondered about the mothers of these spiritual leaders, who I was sure had a hand in making them wise. I made a note to look for her book.

Yet when I got home, to the TV blaring with car races, towers of laundry marching down on the couch, the wreck of breakfast in the kitchen, but no family, I thought these venerable leaders had it all wrong. After I erased the picture of Jim and Cope rushing to the E.R. from my mind with a bloody limb in the ice chest, I called them to find out they'd just run to the store. If someone gave me a prayer pillow, a fur cap, and a cup of hot tea now and again, I expect I could take retreat in at least a chilly room at the Motel 6 for twelve years. It might be easier than the practice of letting go of my expectations for a tidy house, full fridge, and laundry that puts itself away. Not to mention a family that leaves a note when they leave the house.

If thirteen years of marriage and nine years of parenting have taught me nothing else, it is if I let go of outcomes, expectations, interpretations, and control, everything turns out as it should. If I resist the argument about how Cope shouldn't take his fake bloody knife to the school Halloween carnival because weapons aren't normally allowed at school, then Cope will leave it at the Potty Toss booth we are manning and run around like a banshee which is really all he wants anyway. If I don't ask Jim about the end-date of our home renovation, he can surprise me with a working bathroom faucet when I least expect it.

But if I wander off this noble path as I am so wont to do, and try to herd my husband to his life's goals, or rush my son to hockey practice, if I indulge in constructing a story about others and their intentions toward me -- hell is going to be paid, usually in tears, four-letter words, or a crick in the neck.

The practice of letting go within the commitment of marriage, mothering, working, and living is more challenging than any cave or mountain. It may also be even more rewarding. As Cope grows, I find what I don't say is often more important than what I choose to share. Listening is my fall-back position. Just like when he was a toddler, the times I let him go do the things he must on his own are often followed by the best cuddling. With Jim, our childhood wounds sometimes entice us to engage in a power struggle where the weapons are defensiveness, resentment, and worse. It is a constant practice to choose to let one's beloved simply be.

Having missed the tattoo trend by a decade or more, we joke that if we ever get one it will be simple to choose. Let it go.

In cursive. Across our foreheads. A reminder to the other.

Until then, I fumble with this practice, finding success when I stop trying, peace when I start breathing, and joy when I just sit back and admire this sticky, off-key, rambling life.

To let go through Buddhist-influenced yoga, and admire Keith's beautiful altar, visit: http://www.dharma-yoga.net/

To let go through meditation and an exploration of Zen Buddhism, visit: http://www.austinzencenter.org/

To find out more about the nunnery Tenzin Palmo founded in Northern India to offer rare opportunities for girls from Tibet and the Himalayas to receive an education and engage in service, visit: http://www.gatsal.org/index.htm
Robin Bradford, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in recent anthologies -- It's a Boy! Women Writers on Raising Sons and Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood. Bradford is development director at Foundation Communities, a nonprofit affordable housing provider for families and the homeless. Being a mother, wife, and bread-winner are her Buddhist practice. Visit her at www.robinbradfordwriter.com