By Jon Berry
I'M NOT VERY GOOD AT LETTING GO. I'LL BELIEVE I'm doing well. Then someone will ask one of those seemingly innocuous questions that, are in fact, a Pandora’s Box of raw, unresolved emotions. And I'll wonder – as the old, familiar demons rush back to the surface – whether there's ever such a thing as putting the past in the past.
But then I found myself picking up a handful of small, fresh, green leaves to place at the outer edges of the sunbeams emanating out from a mandala created from sand, seashells, pinecones, and stones – one of a series of group exercises in a participatory service on reconciliation and forgiveness at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry last Sunday – and feeling strangely…peaceful.
A similar feeling washed through when we were asked, in a separate exercise, to write down something we were ready to unburden ourselves of – something inside us, or in our lives – then roll the paper into a tube, breathe into it (to inject our spirit); light it in the flame of a candle; then drop it into a bowl, to burn, commingled with others’.
It’s been a week of lessons in new tools for letting go gently. Sunday’s service, premised on Matthew 5:23-25 (essentially, the notion that we cannot “work things out with God” until we “make things right” in our relationships) seemed to segue into Tuesday night’s lecture on mindfulness at Tibet House in New York City by the Buddhist author and teacher Sharon Salzberg.
Different traditions; different cultures. Yet Sunday’s prayer response – a chant-like, sung round of the words “Open my heart” – seemed not so different from Tuesday’s Buddhist prescription to be present to what’s before us (“Be present while the present is here,” in Salzberg’s words). Sunday’s opening hymn – a plea for reconnection written by a modern-day South Korean (“make us one body”; “reconcile your people”) – seemed of a piece with the Buddhist perspective to see our connectedness to each other and the world.
Asked for practices for letting go, Salzberg responded – not so different from the Presbyterian service – with exercises. Try to not take the first action that comes to mind when you are overtaken by a powerful feeling like anger. Give something away when you become too attached. Practice a loving-kindness meditation to rebalance yourself.
Most fundamental, she said, listen to what’s inside you. Sit with yourself not to figure out why you are feeling what you’re feeling, or how to get rid of the feeling, but as a vehicle for self-awareness. “Take apart the cord” of the strands of emotion within the emotion (like the powerlessness, grief, and fear often hiding inside anger). And when the feelings come up again, as they inevitably will -- we're only human, after all -- gently begin again.
Through taking this time – a kind of inward-directed generosity – we gain a more comprehensive understanding of ourselves. That can help us see others, and the world, more clearly, and be more present to both. It reminded me of something that Bill, a well-traveled, old-school mentor of mine, once said about grief: “Carve it down to a clean, sharp pain.”
There’s a Native American expression that I occasionally carry: “Sometimes I go about pitying myself, and all the time, I am being carried on great winds across the sky.” It’s a spiritual kin, I think, to the climactic utterance of Job in the poet Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Old Testament fable. Having heard the Whirlwind, and been awed by its cosmic spectacle, Job says, in a reconnection to the world as powerful, to me, as the Buddha's touching the earth on the night of his great trials, that he is “comforted that I am dust.”
Several times, stepping outside after hearing bad news, I’ve been nudged back into life by a sight in nature – a huge, star-filled sky over San Francisco after the 1989 earthquake cut power to the city; the thick, sparkling band of the Milky Way cutting across a late summer Indiana sky the night in 2000 when a family member passed on; a shimmering moon river off Long Island (the photo above, which I took to press the image into my memory) stretching across the ocean to the horizon a few years ago in the midst of a crisis in someone close.
Early in the week, I asked my friend Paul, a devotee of the traditional American a capella chorus singing of Sacred Harp, for a hymn on letting go. The centuries-old one he forwarded begins with verse after verse of spiritual torment: “My God has me of late forsook/ He’s gone, I know not where”; “I’ve strayed! I’m left! I know not how; The light’s from me withdrawn.” But then, in the last verse, it breaks beautifully in a different direction, toward faith.
“What shall I do? Shall I lie down
And sink in deep despair?
Will He forever frown,
Nor hear my humble prayer?
No; He will put His strength in me,
He knows the way I’ve strolled,
And when I’m tried sufficiently
I shall come forth as gold.”
“Come forth as gold.” In the end, that seems the point of it all – the promise of burning away, creating something new, making things right, extending generosity, taking apart the chord, being present in the present, beginning, then beginning again, and remembering that, even in those days when a feeling we want no part of takes over our life, we are still “carried on great winds.” I think I caught a glimpse of that promise two Fridays ago. Levon Helm – whose, great, rough-hewn tenor once powered The Band, and who now performs with his own homespun Americana ensemble – was settling into the second encore of a pitch-perfect evening at the Tarrytown Music Hall.
With his grown daughter Amy, a singer in the band, he began an a capella rendering of “Gloryland,” an old, country gospel song about life’s end and going to a place with no pain. For Helm – now in his 70s, a survivor of throat cancer, his voice raspy, lucky and so evidently thankful to be alive – and for his daughter, who must have gone through the depths of emotions as her father’s life was in the balance – it must have been a profound, sweet moment of letting go – witnessing to love, and being present, no matter what tomorrow brings. Gold indeed.
I can’t find a link to the Levon Helm Band signing “Gloryland.” For a still-powerful version by country music legend Ralph Stanley, with similar, sweet a capella harmonies, click here. For the lyrics, click here.
Thanks to my friend Paul for the song "Columbus," from Sacred Harp: Words from Mercer's Cluster (1823). For more on the history and practice of the Sacred Harp tradition, click the site of FASOLA, the Sacred Harp Music Association. It includes links to a just-completed full-length documentary on Sacred Harp, “Awake, My Soul"; check out the recording and trailer, and while you're at it, see if there's a sing near you. I get shivers listening to this stuff -- no wonder this people's tradition is still alive and, in fact, undergoing a revival -- hundreds of years on.
Though my faith tradition means I’m in silent worship among Friends at Quaker meetings most often, I sometimes detour to South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, NY, for its creativity, terrific music, and vision of peace and social justice.