Not Every Gauntlet Requires Picking Up

Not every challenge – nor every thought – needs to be acted on, says Sylvia Boorstein. We could be happier just letting go.

Sylvia Boorstein
1 September 2004

Not every challenge – nor every thought – needs to be acted on, says Sylvia Boorstein. We could be happier just letting go.

I was preparing lunch in my kitchen when my six-year-old grandson Harrison stomped in from the next room where he had been playing with his sister, struck a hands-on-hips posture of indignation, and announced, “Bubbe! Honor just called me shit-head.” Honor is three. Their parents are meticulously well-spoken. Clearly, Harrison had learned that word in school and had taught it to Honor. I restrained the impulse to laugh.

“Well,” I said, “I guess people do use that word sometimes.”

“Oh,” said Harrison, as if that were useful new information. He relaxed his arms, turned and left the kitchen, and I heard the sounds of play resuming. A few minutes later Honor strode in with her own report of an infraction.

“Harrison is on the top bunk”, she said “and he is throwing the Beanie Babies all over the floor.”

“It’s a good thing, isn’t it,” I said, pausing long enough for Honor to know I was thinking it over, “that you are not the police of the world. You don’t need to do anything about it. Please ask Harrison to come for lunch. It’s ready.”

As we ate together, all three of us chatting amiably, I thought about my responses and hoped that I had been sufficiently respectful of their individual moments of distress. I wanted them to know that their concerns mattered to me. I also wanted to teach them that provocations come and go, that they merit consideration, but that not every disturbance mandates an impassioned response. I hoped they would experience the possibility, and the pleasure, of choosing contentment over gratuitous uproar. My intention was to have a relaxed lunch.

Every action, and so every choice of action, depends on intention. The question of intention comes up often in meditation classes. “I was meditating,” someone will say, “feeling relaxed and peaceful, when an idea arose in my mind that seemed to shed light on an important issue in my life, one that has troubled me a lot. The idea startled me. I thought, ‘I could ponder this idea. I could follow it along and see where it goes. I could see what memories and associations it brings with it.’ I knew I might feel upset, but I also am always hoping for insights that will liberate me from old, unconscious habit patterns. Then I thought, ‘I could let the idea go. I could continue to cultivate peace.’ I felt like I had a choice. What do you think? Should I have done (A) or (B)?”

I always say, “Yes.”

Everyone always laughs.

Then I say, “(A) or (B) or (A and B) are all fine answers, and the choice of which one, when, depends on intention. What are the possibilities of the moment? What do you think might be accomplished?

If, for example, my intention in meditation is to cultivate a calm and focused mind in preparation for a particular and possibly challenging task, I might decide, “I’ll think about this later. Now I need to concentrate.” On the other hand, in the middle of a meditation retreat, with ample time to rebuild composure in the mind if it is stirred up by thoughts and memories, I might choose to reflect. Thinking about thoughts and feelings sometimes illuminates unconscious psychological patterns, and when it does, it may be helpful. Patterns that are conscious lose some of their energy. They can be seen as habits of the mind, perhaps as potent as they are because they connect to powerful emotional experiences recorded in memory, but essentially empty.  Over time, they become less able to condition feelings or behavior. My experience is that they do not go away. They remain as patterns of  thinking, but they aren’t troublesome.

And, in yet a third instance, in the middle of a jhana retreat, where my intention is to cultivate unwavering states of concentration, I would resist all provocations—interesting thoughts, tantalizing thoughts, frightening thoughts—anything that might disturb the essential peace of the mind. My intention in that practice would be twofold: I would hope to experience the sublime states of rapture and calm and equanimity that predominate in a concentrated mind. I would also hope to directly experience the insight that although provocations come and go, they are essentially empty.  “All defilements,” the Tibetans say, “are self-liberating in the great space of awareness.”

If Honor habitually used harsh words, I’d say something about it to her. Or, I’d mention it to her parents. If Harrison’s playful behavior had some potential of being harmful, I’d stop it. In the case of the lunchtime mutual recriminations—probably related to the fact that they both were hungry—I decided to hold the largest truth open for them to relax into: Annoyance happens. If it’s not a big deal, we can let it go. Letting it go is conducive to peace, and that’s a pleasure.

photo of Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein is a psychologist and leading teacher of Insight Meditation. Her many best-selling books include Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake and Happiness Is An Inside Job.