A few months ago I had a toothache and so I went to see a dentist. He had a look at the problem and then knocked off a bit of my tooth and smoothed the rough edge down. I can feel it now as I’m writing this. He told me that he could try to build the tooth back up, but that a basic rule of dentistry is that removal strengthens and addition weakens.
I am not a Buddhist and I don’t know much about Buddhism. But one thing I know – and I think it’s probably all I need or care to know – is that Buddhism teaches a simple truth: suffering comes from attachment, and the end of attachment is the end of suffering. So whenever you can feel yourself feeling bad, you know you’ve become attached to something. Something matters to you.
There is no end to the list of things you can be attached to, no end to the things that can matter to you, things that you care about, things that have meaning for you. People sometimes talk about the ‘meaning of life’ – in the Buddhist view, meaning means suffering. So the way to stop suffering is to relinquish meaning. Let it go. Surrender.
So what’s at the top of the list? What means the most to you? Your marriage? Your job? Money? The stories you tell yourself about who or what you are?
But here is the root of the matter – nothing ever stays the same. The world is constantly changing, and so are you. Trying to hold on to something that’s always changing is like trying to tie water up in a brown paper package – it can’t be done and only makes you angry (or sad, or frustrated, or depressed, or a whole host of bad stuff). Trying to hold onto impermanent things (ie everything) is a recipe for unhappiness and pain.
So what’s the alternative? Instead of clinging, recognize the truth – that you are always changing, and so is the world – and so to follow the moving currents of life is the only sensible option if you want to be happy. This means letting go of your stories about what matters. It means giving up everything – in a sense, it means losing yourself. When you see the world through your own eyes, not the eyes of who you tell yourself you are – wife, father, teacher, introvert, victim, leader – it’s all so different.
Just as in dentistry, in life, subtracting is always better than adding. When you drop the stories you’ve been telling yourself, drop the labels – when all that stuff doesn’t matter any more – something strange happens. Life starts to work. All the things you cared about and strived for start to show up. The philosopher of Asian religion, Alan Watts, called this the ‘law of reversed effort’ – when a man who can’t swim struggles to stay afloat, he sinks, but when he yields to the water, he floats; when a fly in a spiders’ web struggles to become free, it only enmeshes itself more in the web. Being still, watching as life unfolds, unattached (not caring about stuff)and letting things work in their own miraculous way is also called the ‘art of allowing.’
The truth of the matter is that, whatever we might think, we cannot force life to go our way. When I was a kid, my dad taught me how to saw wood – he told me to make sure I was moving along the grain, and to let the saw do the work. After a bit of practice, it did indeed feel as if the saw was doing all the work. I was there, holding the saw, but there was a kind of letting go, a kind of effortlessness that led to more effective results. By working with the grain of wood, a carpenter can create amazing and stylish pieces of furniture, but he has to respect the integrity of the material – the way it flows. By sailing – or tacking – with the wind, a skilful sailor can travel enormous distances, but she has to be observant and follow the changing air currents.
I am not a Buddhist. That’s another label, another story to tell myself. But to let go of attachment, to stop caring about things, to allow life to unfold and, in so doing, to achieve more, seems to me like a better way to live.