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My Evening With Buddhist Nuns – Lessons of Attachment & Letting Go

I was able to share the evening with two lovely and wish buddhist nuns and they led a group discussion on attachment

5 Important Lessons Learned

1.  Cherish your memories… just don’t become their slave.

2.  Expect the best… but prepare for the worst.

3.  Let the memory of the past serve you… not weigh you down.

4.  Release the attachments that no longer serve you and move forward a little lighter and more sure-footed.

5.  Embrace the fear of the unknown and enjoy the scary and exciting new territories of life on this epic adventure.

My Evening

About a month ago I was visiting a friend for an extended weekend and was invited to attend a group led and taught by two Buddhist Nuns. The thought intrigued me and I accepted. The emphasis of the evening was “attachment” and proved to be very insightful / enlightening… so much so that I thought it would be valuable to share the experience. The main purpose of my stay for that weekend happened to be attending a memorial service for one of my dearest friends. It was a tremendously emotional weekend but somehow it was also a very spiritually cleansing weekend. Monday rolled around and that was when this group meeting was held. It seems the odd humor of the universe that as I was letting go of my recently departed friend, I was invited to a gathering focused on just that… letting go. I didn’t see how apropos the connection was until now.

We Arrive

Klop klop! The car doors shut behind us as we begin walking through the church parking lot on a chilly and crisp fall evening in November. The clocks have just been set back, as they are every first Sunday in November. The loss of daylight is freshly poignant as we make it to the building doors in darkness. My curious eyes rove from left to right, taking in my surroundings and without fully realizing it, pre-judging the experience built off of environmental cues. The building is nicely kept but obviously dated. It doesn’t scream modern. It’s what you picture when you are prompted to recall a community center from your childhood.

Surveying the Landscape

We pass through a gym and finally into a room with slightly vaulted ceilings, broad wooden trusses and a panel of highly positioned windows that seem almost like stained-glass but are infused with large, almost Sanskrit-looking, brush strokes. Chairs are neatly organized in rough dimensions of ten rows deep and sixteen chairs wide, a gap passing through the middle of it, providing an aisle. A group of young, around-20, hipsters with trendy clothes, piercings and tattoos sit in the upper right corner. A middle-aged, disheveled woman, wearing a red, hand-crocheted scarf, sits on the opposite side of the room, gazing forward in anticipation. About thirty other “students” are present and are just as varied in age, gender, ethnicity and background.

Buddhist Nuns Unveiled

Two women, somewhere around the vicinity of 50 to 60 years old, proceed from the back of the room to the front in traditional Buddhist robes of a maroon hue. They are calm and collected and to my reserved astonishment don’t have much hair on their heads. In fact, their heads have been shaved just as any other (male) Buddhist monk from a monastery would be. To be completely honest, I had never heard of Buddhist nuns or seen one for that matter. They are simply the female counterpart to monks, a group of spiritual and knowledge seeking individuals, so dedicated to their purpose they have sacrificed their ordinary lives to live in a monastic community.

They have given up all their possessions (yes, even their gender-precious hair) and practice their spiritual discipline in utmost seriousness. We would later learn from these women, that historically the more complete Buddhist teachings have not been accessible to the female nuns but the door has finally been opened to them.

Setting the Stage

Both women had a calm and poised demeanor with a certain level of personal power and self-awareness that radiated outward. They were respectable individuals. They welcomed us and began our meeting with a fairly brief session of guided meditation. After which, despite trying to focus on the topic of gratitude, the audience was more enamored by questions related to attachment.

Attachment: A Primer

Attachment to people, places, things and ideas are natural inclinations of human beings. Buddhist teachings seek to bring awareness to these attachments as they inevitably lead to our suffering. What is a common misconception of Buddhist philosophy and teachings is that Buddhist’s seek to eradicate any joy or pleasure by erasing the enjoyment of the people, places and things we become attached to.

This is far from the intention of the teachings. The Buddhist teachings seek to first make us aware of the things we cling to and secondly free us from the suffering that is caused by them when we clutch and contain them like prisoners. Recall the famous adage; if you truly love, you cannot cage a butterfly in the attempt to preserve your enjoyment or appreciation of its beauty. You steal it’s life. If you love something (in this analogy, a butterfly), you must allow it to be set free. If it chooses to come back to you, all the better, but if not, you are not tortured by its absence.

We must understand the impermanence of this world, enjoying blessings while available to us but ready to release them when they decide to depart. Simply understanding this principle helps two-fold. First, we appreciate things to a greater capacity while we have them because we understand that most things are not permanent fixtures in our lives. Secondly, we can reconcile our losses with less torment because we understand the impermanent nature of this world. It’s not to say that extreme losses will not be deeply felt but that we will be able to pass through these sufferings more easily with this understanding. We will spend less time obsessing our losses in popular fashions such as, continually asking “Why?,” beating ourselves up in self-blame or even cursing God for allowing such a devastating loss.

A Child’s Lock of Hair

A member of the group offered up a realization that became the most prominent discussion of the evening. And even though I understood the principle right off the bat, as the engaged discussion unraveled and evolved, it eventually touched on aspects that brought about an even deeper understanding of the “anatomy of attachments,” so to speak.

My Precious!

A woman in her late 40’s raised her hand and began to share with us that amongst a collection of mementos from her daughter’s childhood, there was a locket of hair that had become something far beyond an object representing a treasured epoch of time. She had realized the gravity of attachment she had built into this object. She explained that she had two lockets of hair, one that was preserved in a scrapbook she designed to one day give to her daughter and one that was “just for her.” She jested how the locket had almost become what the ring had become to Smeagol or Gollum in the The Lord of the Rings. It had become such an irrationally prized object of possession that you could envision her stroking it in secret, whispering, “My precious” in delirious self-satisfaction. She admitted that after making this realization she has tried to bring herself to part with it, merely to remove the hold it has over her.

An Interrupted Response

One of the nuns began to respond. In between asking a few interactive questions, she started illustrating from various angles the power of her realization. Suddenly, another middle-aged woman from the audience seemed to have spontaneously come down with involuntary muscle spasms. She vehemently raised her hand, trying to gain the attention of the nun but then would retract it in an effort of self-restraint. She did this repetitively five or so times in the span of a few seconds, after which she was able to contain herself for a few seconds… until once again repeating the frantic gesture. I thought it was pretty comical. The nun clearly recognized her but naturally continued to finish her thoughts, as they were midstream. The seemingly possessed woman from the audience couldn’t contain herself anymore and began blurting out her objection,

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry but I don’t understand why keeping the hair is BAD. It’s something of beauty, of her daughters, that can be admired. Something she can hold onto and cherish and reminisce of that precious time. Why would you want to get rid of something so special? Why is it BAD?”

Not the Object but the Ideas Imbued

Many things we value most do not have much intrinsic value on their own but are imparted unto them by us. We infuse memories, ideas and sometimes emotional structures with mythological proportions to certain objects, people or periods of time. Their power and hold over us grows with the continued time and energy we afford them. What’s wrong with this? The more power we infuse into these objects and dwell on them, the more we trade the importance of now for the memory of the past; the more we are distracted from living the most important reality, the only one we can be sure of… the present moment.

Buddhist Nun’s Anecdotal Illustration with “Mom”

The other Buddhist nun entered the conversation and contributed a valuable example of the perils of all of this. She explained that when she visits her mother, her mother usually hugs her, then places her hand on her face and starts in with the routine, ”Oh honey, I remember when you were just a small child. Oh you were so precious, etc, etc.” Her eyes leave the present moment and the vacancy signifies her presence in some other remote point in time. The nun explained her mother would go on and on reminiscing of her childhood and the past.

As she told the story, I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the story until she said the following.

“Who I am at that moment really doesn’t matter or exist to her. I’m not really there. She doesn’t ask about what I’m doing or how I’m doing because it doesn’t exist. The only thing that exists is her pillowy, dream-like memory of me from decades ago. And the past wasn’t anything near as good or as accurate as the one she has built this “house of nostalgia” from.”

This nun in unable to have a real relationship anchored in the present with her mother. She can’t move forward with her to create new memories and interactions. Her mother’s mind is trapped in the past. The nun expressed the belief that her mother really isn’t living anymore. She lived her life and now she simply ruminates through the memories of it. This was very sad to hear. You could sense the pain it caused.

I Still Don’t Understand

Back to the locket of hair, the Buddhist nuns explained that keeping the hair as a memento isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. Choosing to keep it or let it go are both completely fine. But if there is significant attachment to an object like this, even this realization and understanding of its true nature can help us take a step back and remove some of the weight of the attachment. It helps us view its relative importance more objectively and in more grounded terms.

A gentleman raised his hand and offered a realization he made a few weeks ago about an attachment to something. He decided he would get rid of it in an effort to let go of the attachment. He realized he didn’t need the object anymore and he wanted to release the energy he had poured into it. When he thought about giving it up he was almost assaulted by his ego desperately trying to maintain possession of this object. His mind pleaded with him, lashing about to and fro with a list of repercussions such a loss would cause while securing the importance of keeping it.  It was a powerful feeling. In that moment he was able to recognize what was really happening and just how powerful a simple attachment can be… how badly our ego craves old foundations. After witnessing this within himself it became strikingly clear how important it was for his personal growth to let go of the object. Within the week he rid himself of the object. One of the Buddhist nuns asked him how he felt afterward. With the tone of profound impact and a subtle smile he expressed that he felt, “lighter, much much lighter.”

THAT is the purpose of letting go of our attachments, of our expectations… to feel lighter, more present and to move forward with less resistance.

Attachments in a Broader Context

We all have attachments, from the people we have built relationships with to the little mementos we keep to remember important thoughts, ideas or memories. These are natural and normal. However, if we can understand and be at peace with the impermanence of our world while simultaneously being able to see how pouring our energy into things affects us then we might choose which objects we surrender such power to more wisely. That is the hope of many Buddhist teachings (and one that was illuminated so well during that evening’s discussion), to be aware of our attachments; being able to not only recognize them and their effect but also release them when they no longer serve us.

Expectations

An expectation is a more abstract form of attachment but is perhaps more powerful, pervasive and deeply felt in our society than any other form of attachment. Circumstances and dynamics are continually in flux. Our worlds’ seem to speed up and change more rapidly every day and as our reality unfolds many of us crumble when our expectations (our attachment to the way we think things and the future is supposed to be), fail to manifest. We should always maintain a clear vision of where we want to head and what we want to be or do but we must realize as life happens and circumstances change, the path and means to realizing that vision will need to be adjusted… sometimes the entire vision will need to be replaced with a vision more in step with the person you are becoming and where your trajectory is leading you.

 

Once Again, Those 5 Important Lessons


1.  Cherish your memories… just don’t become their slave.

2.  Expect the best… but prepare for the worst.

3.  Let the memory of the past serve you… not weigh you down.

4.  Release the attachments that no longer serve you and move forward a little lighter and more sure-footed.

5.  Embrace the fear of the unknown and enjoy the scary and exciting new territories of life on this epic adventure.

 

 

About Doctor Scott Health

Dr. Scott McLeod, PharmD is an independent researcher, health advocate and author living in Santa Barbara, CA. For more information about Scott and Doctor Scott Health please visit the 'About' section, here.

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