Take It or Leave It: 5 Affirmations for letting go
Decades after leaving monastic life, the author continues to find freedom in his vow of poverty.
For eight years, I lived the life of a monk, observing the sacred vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Of those three, the vow that has stayed with me for almost five decades since leaving the monastery is poverty. Over the years, its lessons have deepened in me, defining a true spiritual path.
The monk Thomas Merton wrote in Thoughts in Solitude something that I have never forgotten: “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our own bosom. When we let go of them we begin to appreciate them as they really are.”
Merton is speaking about attachment, and the “things” he tells us we may be hugging so tightly to ourselves are not only material objects like money and property, fancy cars, and nice clothes but intangible ones, as well: emotional, mental, and even spiritual “things.”
Attachment, in other words, keeps us blind to our own good. As we hug more and more “things” to our bosom, we are drawn further away from our spiritual center, where our joyful, authentic self is waiting to unfold.
Read the lives of great spiritual teachers through the ages, and you will see that their first instruction to their students was to let go of the things of the world and embrace the experience of having nothing. “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it,” Jesus says, “but those who lose their life will keep it.” And they lived their own lives as examples of detachment, whether it was the roshi chopping wood and carrying water, or Gandhi spinning at his wheel. The way of the Buddha is founded on the principle of nonattachment.
When I first read Merton’s words, I was living behind the walls of a monastery not far from the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton’s cloister in Kentucky. I spent eight years as a monk, until it became clear to me and my spiritual counselor that my vocation might have been a temporary one, that my place was not in a hermitage but “out in the world,” trying to serve God and others in more direct ways.
As I went from one life experience to another, switching careers and lifestyles along the way, a profound sense of my vows slowly emerged. Out in the world, chastity was innocence of mind and heart. Obedience was personal responsibility. Poverty was detachment.
When we hear the word poverty, poor people and poor living conditions leap to mind, maybe Mother Teresa ministering to the aged and infirm in Calcutta. But monastic poverty is not about that at all. At the root of the vow is surrendering ownership.
Everything monks appear to own, they own in common—which is to say that they own nothing personally. They have renounced ownership. They use things, but they do not own them. The sense of the vow is that the value of something is judged not by its monetary worth but by its usefulness. A car, for example, is not a status symbol but a means to get you from one place to another.
From monastic poverty I learned to apply the virtue of detachment to several areas of life: body, mind, emotions, and spirit. Holding back from acquiring more and more “stuff,” all the shiny new toys that we are drawn to in our consumer culture, is probably the most obvious thing we think about when we consider detachment. Certainly, living simply and leaving as small a footprint as possible is becoming an admirable spiritual practice.
Yet detachment from negative or wasteful mental activities, like dwelling on past failures, or wallowing in low self-esteem, can also bring us closer to our spiritual aspirations. The twentieth-century mystic Simone Weil tells us, “Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be attained only by someone who is detached.”
To make detachment part of your everyday life, consider the question that was asked in a little sticker that went on the dashboards of cars during World War II, when savinggas was vital to the peace effort: “Is this trip really necessary?”
What really is necessary when it comes to our personal belongings? When it comes to thoughts that we roll over constantly in our heads, many of them useless? Emotions that are often toxic? Spiritual ideas and practices that have become stale and dull?
Living the spirit of monastic poverty can be tremendously liberating. The monk says, “I can take this or leave it. . . . It is all the same.” That is detachment, a spiritual path that gets wider and more fulfilling as we surrender the things we are clinging to so closely.
Affirmations for Letting Go
“I willingly surrender my attachment to what other people might think about me.”
“I allow myself to keep an open mind to other interpretations of my religion and my personal spirituality.”
“I let go of my attachment to the material things that surround me—I can take these or leave them; it is all the same.”
“I give up the negative emotions that have created a comfort zone for me—they no longer serve me.”
“I release the need to judge others’ thoughts and beliefs.”