It’s not uncommon for people to ask Joseph Goldstein for the secret teachings. As one of the great meditation masters of our time and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), fielding such questions comes with the job. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard friends talking in the IMS staff dining room about the time they asked Joseph for the secret. Here’s the most frequent answer he gave:
When Joseph gave me the secret teachings he told me to always check the back table of the dining room for desserts. I suppose a mind as wise as Joseph’s can attune to the needs of the student.
I want to think with you today about the secret teaching he shared with my friends, as I recently had the opportunity to ask Joseph: How do we not cling?
First, though, it seems important to address: What is clinging? And why do we do it?
I recently heard some great answers to these questions from Kate Munding, a rising star teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition. In September, Kate gave her first talk in the meditation hall at IMS, which I think of as the equivalent of a pop star playing Madison Square Garden for the first time. Kate brought the house down, so to speak, with her reflections on clinging and freedom from clinging.
Kate said, “We cling to ideas of how [things] should be—of how we should be—these ideas are not founded in truth.”
Consider: How much of our lives are grasping to the way we think things should be, the way I should be, the way others should be. It’s an epidemic in my own experience.
Take for instance an argument I recently had with a friend that seemed to leave both of us with bad feelings. At first, I just wanted the conversation to have gone differently and repeated in my mind phrases that are sure indicators of clinging: “If only…” and “Why didn’t…” I was hurt by what he said and what I said, so I grasped for the possibility that just maybe it didn’t have to turn out that way. Yet it did. Then, following a begrudging acceptance of how things went down, I started clinging to an identity for myself: I blew it. Also an identity for him: What a jerk. This is just one example of the enumerable ways that clinging can pervade our lives.
The clinging above sounds pretty awful, right? So why do we persist in doing it?
Kate offered a few compelling reasons:
1. Sense of stability, which provides comfort, even if it is a false sense of comfort. In the example of the argument with my friend, for some reason my mind is initially more comfortable with the idea that I’ve blown it than with the not knowing what’s going to happen next. Usually when my mind is predetermining the outcome it’s pretty catastrophic, but it does offer the illusion of control.
2. Sense of place and a sense of self. This is also not based in truth. When I worked for National Geographic, I started a meditation group there, and I developed a reputation in the organization as the compassionate and relaxed guy. If one were to cling to an identity, that’s a pretty sweet one, yes? I’d thought so, until moments when I was feeling rage or fear—then the compassionate relaxed identity was pretty constricting. No matter how appealing any sense of self may be there is no identity that can encapsulate us.
3. The sense that something outside of self will offer long-term happiness, satisfaction, or pleasantness. The great poet David Whyte punches through the faulty logic of this idea in his audiobook Clear Mind/Wild Heart, He said, “One of the great temptations of human existence is to base your life on contingency. You will actually take the courageous step once all the conditions are right for you: when you have the right boss; when you have the right job; when the car payments have been made; when the kids are through college; when you’re on your deathbed; when you’re dead. It will be certainly easier then.”
These are the ways that we get used to perpetual suffering from clinging. During Kate’s talk, she had everyone make a fist for a physical embodiment of clinging, and she made the point that this discomfort can become normal. I thought of the line from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, “[he] lived life like a closed fist.”
So how do we relax and open that fist?
I’ve found that when I’m told don’t cling, inwardly or outwardly, it doesn’t work for me. It’s like being told to relax when I’m stressed out—the effect is not relaxing. Put another way, if I tell you not to think of a zebra, there goes a zebra galloping across the plains of your mind.
I’ve found that bringing awareness to clinging helps to release the grip, because once I am aware of the clinging and the harm it causes, I’m less inclined to perpetuate that harm.
I shared this understanding with Joseph, and asked him how to not cling. The following are the three paths to not clinging that he shared:
1. Awareness of change: If we're aware of the constantly changing flow of phenomena then there is nothing to cling onto. Joseph offered the metaphor of a stream. When watching the flow of the stream, it's not possible to cling to any one droplet of water. I interpret this to mean that when we're aware of the immediate experience: sounds, smells, sensations, thoughts, emotions, tastes, and so on, then we're not able to cling onto any of it, because we see that it is always changing. Back to the giving myself a hard time after the argument with my friend, when I’m aware of bodily sensations and emotions and thoughts, I’m not taking the experience personally. It’s just passing experience.
2. Acceptance: Joseph pointed out that any time that we’re not accepting what is happening then we’re clinging. The presence of suffering is an indicator that we’re not opening to something: an emotion, a sensation in the body. Whatever it may be, Joseph offered this potent question: “What am I not accepting?” I’ve found that awareness of what I’m not accepting goes a long way towards accepting it and being freed from its grip.
3. If clinging leads to suffering…: Joseph told a story about how he was once in a relationship. His partner ended the relationship, which was not Joseph’s preference. Joseph recognized—his holding onto the not-wanting-the-relationship-to-be-over was suffering—if he doesn’t hold onto the not-wanting-the-relationship-to-be-over then he’s not suffering. He’d prefer to suffer less, so…
All of Joseph’s (not so) secret teachings on how to let go of clinging have been of immeasurable benefit in my life, and I especially appreciated Joseph sharing his story of letting go of the relationship clinging last. Joseph says that people have told him that’s it not normal to let go of clinging to a dear relationship that easefully, but just knowing the possibility of the mind to respond in that way is a great inspiration, even if such clarity is not always accessible to me.
It was months before I let go of the clinging after the argument with my friend, and, of course, it didn’t resolve the way I imagined it would or on the timetable I would have chosen. The result of freedom from clinging is not a guaranteed realization of the way I wanted things to be; it’s better: okayness with the way things are, and the recognition that it’s always changing.