Each year I plan a retreat for my community. This year I am bringing Dr. James Finley to Boulder, CO on September 20, 21 and 22, 2013 to lead a retreat on Meister Eckhart and Letting Go. This is an interview that I conducted with Dr. Finley a couple of weeks ago. To learn more about the retreat and how to attend, please visit: http://www.finleyretreat.com
A Dialogue With Dr. James Finley About Letting Go With Stephanie Raffelock
“Letting Go” is a phrase employed by psychologists and theologians alike that inspires and encourages us to loosen our psychic grip, if you will, on outcomes and desired resolves. But how exactly, beyond lip service, does one actually “let go?” And what does letting go mean in terms of our spiritual unfolding?
I sat down recently with retreat leader and psychologist Dr. James Finley to explore these and other questions about what it means to let go and how that particular process might inform in our daily journey into prayer and contemplation.
When we talk about letting go in spiritual sense, are we talking about a kind of surrender into something greater? Would you please distinguish between letting go and surrender?
The starting place for me is to accept the fact that it takes a committed effort to reach any kind of wholeness or fulfillment. For example, as it applies to love: Two people meet and fall in love and they have high hopes that over a lifetime together they are going to grow in love together, but for that to really work, they have to be doing love’s work. That is to say, the desire must be bolstered by a lifetime of effort.
The same thing applies when a couple decides to have children. It takes a lifetime of fidelity to challenges that good parenting requires. So too with committing ourselves to one of the healing professions, or to going through our own healing process. So too with poetry and the arts—all the fundamental modalities of a fulfilled life require an ongoing effort.
Yet, what happens as we commit ourselves to these transformative processes is that we come to points at which we reach the end of our own resources. We experience our limitations in being unable, by sheer brute force of our own efforts, to achieve our noble goals.
It is at such times that we are tempted to panic or get discouraged. Then we discover the way forward lies in learning to let go of imagining that we can force our way through to the goal we seek. As we relax into the situation, we begin to realize that the way forward lies in learning to let go of our own abilities as having the final say in what is possible, so that resources within us and beyond us can come rolling through, bringing us, in all sorts of unexpected ways, to the wholeness and fulfillment we seek.
The need for effort remains. But the effort is infused with a quality of an ongoing letting go that allows graced possibilities to flow through our limitations and shortcoming, leaving us grateful and amazed. Such is the disciplined effort of the mature lover, the parent, the poet, the healer. The way forward lies in leaning into what needs to be done in an ongoing stance of letting go that renders us supple and responsive to what needs to appear, what needs to happen next.
Shortcomings, both real and imagined, when deeply seen and accepted, are an important part of the transformative process of learning to let go. If we do not let go of the need to be perfect, our need to be perfect will get in our way. Likewise, if we do not let go of our fear of failing, our fear of failing will get in the way. But as we learn to let go of the need to be perfect and the fear of failure, the intimate, earthy stuff of being a vulnerable, loving human being begins to shine through. In an ongoing process of learning to let go we bear witness to the great truth that the master limps. The mastery of life is intermingled with the ongoing weaknesses and limitations that gives life its rich and many layered texture and meaning.
This blending of ongoing effort merged with an ongoing interior stance of letting go, gives insight into the nature of spiritual practices. Lovers cannot make the moments of oceanic oneness happen, but together they can engage in the acts that embody a mutual letting go that offers the least resistance to being overtaken, yet one more time, by the gift of oceanic oneness.
The poet cannot force the poem out onto the paper. But the poet can assume the inner stance of letting go that offers the least resistance to the gift of poetry welling up and out onto the paper. The one committed to healing reaches points at which he or she cannot make healing happen. But the one committed to healing can assume the inner stance of letting go that offers the least resistance to the graced event of healing.
The spiritual life seems to evolve out of moments in which we fleetingly glimpse a mystery, without which our life will be forever incomplete. This awareness is followed by the realization that I, by my own powers , cannot force my way through into mystery of the fulfillment I long for. Nor can I coax the mystery to take me to itself. What I can do is learn to let go of the illusion that my inabilities have the final say in what is possible for me. What I can do is let go of the control I think I have over the life I think I am living. What I can do is get vulnerable in the messy, intimate process of letting go, so that what I am powerless to achieve can grant itself to me in my very powerlessness to achieve it. That is what makes the awakening event to be an “amazing grace.” Who would have guessed it? The mystery that is always beyond me is always giving itself to me in my ongoing stance of letting go of my ability to reach it on my own terms.
Much as we humans may try, somehow superstitions can and do creep into our faith. Would you talk a little bit about letting go of superstition and immersing in spiritual letting go?
Superstition is magical thinking that we buy into. A closer look reveals that it is not really trustworthy. In the light of the wisdom traditions, we can single out four superstitions we sometimes buy into: the first is the superstition that the ego can, by its own abilities, reach ultimate peace and fulfillment in love, in creativity or any foundational aspect of life. The opposite superstition is that my inability to achieve the noble goal condemns me to never reaching it. The third superstition is that some power will achieve the noble goal for me if I perform the right ritual or believe the right thing. And the fourth superstition is that anything other than whole-hearted effort accompanied by an ongoing stance of letting go is going to bring me to the wholeness and fulfillment I seek.
Someone said to me once, “Just surrender into God’s love.” And while their direction sounded poetic and beautiful, I didn’t really understand what such an action really meant. What is meant by surrendering into God’s love?
Someone comes into therapy, distraught and traumatized. If I say, “ Just surrender to God’s love,” I am disrespecting the painful place in which they find themselves. I must first acknowledge the reality of their suffering, let them know that I am so sorry this is happening to them and then sit with them in the intimacy of such suffering. Within the space of compassionate empathy, I may say, “I get the feeling that this suffering is not the only thing going on here. I get the feeling that this suffering does not have the final say in who you are. If it did, it would have annihilated you. Therefore, there must be something in you that is not reducible to this tragedy.” The point being that the notion of surrendering to God’s love in the midst of suffering becomes a real and helpful goal in the context of an intimate acceptance of suffering, infused with an intimate sense of God being somehow present in the suffering as kind of promise or hope that is somehow already present in some obscure manner that is not easy to explain. A lot of healing flows from two people sitting together in this intimate and obscure path to wholeness.
I know that recently you have been doing some work with The Twelve Steps of AA and the process of letting go. Surely there is a letting go process in the healing of addiction. Please tell me a little about that.
What I have been exploring is that each of the twelve steps of Alcoholics anonymous is a pathway to “mystical sobriety,” that brings a person to a liberation from the tyranny of suffering in the midst of suffering. Each of the twelve steps can be explored as a path leading to mystical sobriety that brings a person to freedom from the tyranny of death in the midst of death. The art of letting go lies at the heart of this path to mystical sobriety.
It’s easy to keep “letting go” as an ideal in your head, but is there a concrete process that you would share with your readers that each of us can take to begin the letting go/surrender process?
There are three guidelines in the wisdom traditions that can help us in the ongoing, daily process of letting go. The first guideline is to find your practice and practice it. That means to find that act, that person, that community, which, when you give yourself over to it with your whole heart it unravels your petty pre occupation with your self-absorbed self and in doing so sets you free to be who deep down you really are and are called to be. Your practice might be sitting silent and still in meditation. It might be gardening, or taking long slow walks to no place in particular. Or your practice might be reading or writing poetry, painting or some other creative activity. Or your practice might be being vulnerable and open with the person in whose presence you are taken to the deeper place. As Eido Roshi, put it, “if you are faithful to your practice, your practice will be faithful to you.” Little by little, practice becomes habituated into your day. Little by little, your life becomes practice.
The second guideline is to find your teaching and follow it. By this is meant to find those words that access your heart and elicit a deep “yes, this is true.” These words name me. They reveal to me who I deep down really am and long to be. These teaching may be found in the scriptures, or the words of a poet, or someone whose presence and teachings offers guidance and encouragement in your life. Little by little your daily life becomes your teacher.
And the third guideline is to find your community and enter it. Your community is found in a person in whose presence you know you are not alone on the path of letting go. Your community may be the presence of a teacher or mentor, a spouse or fellow traveler on the spiritual path. Your community might be found in a group that gathers for meditation or prayer that offers support and guidance on the spiritual path. Eventually, you discover everyone you meet, that all your fellow human beings are your community.
In the spirit of these teachings, James Finley will be in Boulder, CO September 20, 21 and 22, 2013 leading a retreat on Meister Eckhart and Letting Go. To learn more about the retreat and how to attend, please visit: http://www.finleyretreat.com