Letting Go and Picking Up

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo • June 2013

Many of the practices we hear and read about in our tradition are focused on the process of letting go—how we let go of our habits and tendencies, as well as objects of mind. We do this to dwell in and experience the pure state of awareness that comes from not grasping or holding onto anything. This is the ultimate practice on the path: letting go of negative tendencies and realizing, at the end of the practice, a complete release, a complete letting go of everything, including the path that has taken us there.

I think it is also true that a substantial amount of the practice—if not all of the practice before completely letting go—also involves picking up. We learn this skill by discerning what it is we need to let go of and what it is we need to pick up and engage with. All the obstructions and hindrances to meditation—negative thoughts, reactions out of anger, greed, or confusion—are habits we can mindfully see arise in our minds and let go of to the best of our abilities.

In the same process so much of the path is involved with skillfully picking up different positive qualities—the habits of generosity, renunciation, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, the practices of virtue, the sublime states of mind: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity. All of these are using an object that we are picking up, and at least temporarily, holding onto. Our learning consists of understanding which different types of mind states we can access, which ones we want to let go of, and which ones we want to develop further. Letting go and picking up often go hand-in-hand so that as we begin to recognize a difficult mind state, such as anger arising, we realize it’s something we want to let go of while at the same time—even simultaneously—we recognize something like patient endurance that needs to be picked up. For example, if a difficult situation arises, such as when a challenging person comes into our life, we can let go as we recognize the tendency to react out of anger while at the same time, we can pick up, develop, and nurture patience, the determination not to react, and kindness for the other person and for ourselves.

This morning I noticed one of the people in the meditation hall gently removing a spider from the room. How many people in the world will go to great pains to take a spider out of a room and set it free? Most of the time it’s a quick stomping of the foot and that’s it. This is something to pick up on, this type of sensitivity and caring for even the smallest of creatures. We can think of it as picking up a skillful mind habit. All of these actions have an impact on the mind and the heart. In our daily lives, we can explore what it is that’s helpful for us to pick up, nurture and engage with, as well as what habits we can develop that will support us in our practice.