"Loss is the great equalizer that reminds us that we are not omnipotent; it helps us crack open our defensive shell of invulnerability and denial," writes Lama Surya Das in this robust and rounded examination of change, loss, and transformation. We have all been or at some point in our lives will be shaken to the roots by experiences of suffering and loss. All the world's religions teach us that we can use these dark nights of the soul as opportunities for spiritual maturation. This book contains many stories about people who have been hobbled by pain, illness, the death of loved ones, and other personal losses. Surya Das mixes these accounts with meditative practices and many exceptional teaching stories from the Buddhist tradition. All of this material comes under the heading of what he calls "The Pearl Principle: no pain, no transformative gain."
Historian Daniel Boorstin calls the human "the asking animal" and Surya Das adds: "Like the Buddha, we want to find the lessons that lie buried in suffering and pain. Questioning is an essential part of the spiritual path: self-inquiry, introspection, philosophy — all involve genuine doubt and skepticism as propellants fueling the spiritual journey. We find meaning in the seeking itself." Instead of trying to run away from loss and setbacks, we can square off with them with wisdom and spirit.
Surya Das recalls that his Tibetan teachers always noted that the first step in dealing with suffering was to look at the losses realistically. He recommends using a journal to come to grips with buried feelings of pain, anger, or regret. Another part of the process is to use the pain in order to benefit others, like the Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) did with their losses.
One of the reasons why we suffer so much is that we are so attached to ideas, feelings, people, and things. Surya Das quotes a little ditty found by a friend on a nursery school wall. It's called "The Toddler's Creed":
"If I want it, it's mine.
"If I give it to you and then change my mind, it's mine.
"If I can take it away from you by force, it's mine.
"If I had it a little while ago, it's mine.
"If we are playing with something together, then all the pieces are mine.
"If it looks like the one I used to own or have at home, it's mine."
We certainly recognized the self-centered toddler in ourselves! The spiritual practice of letting go challenges us to loosen our grip on things, habitual patterns of action, and rigid lists of likes and dislikes. The author uses this nifty phrase to describe what is needed: "Letting go means learning to lighten up as well as enlightening up." Through this practice, we not only diminish our attachments but open up so new possibilities can emerge and come into our lives.
There are many teaching stories in this book. Here is one:
"There is a wonderful Zen story about a monk who was promoted to the rank of teacher. Feeling proud of his accomplishments, the monk went to visit a Zen master. When he arrived he took off his wooden clogs and left them, along with his umbrella, at the front of the door. "Tell me," the master asked of the young teacher, "when you removed your shoes, did you place them to the left or the right of your umbrella?" Of course, the young monk didn't remember. When he heard that question, he realized that he still had a lot to learn. Why wasn't he paying attention to his shoes as he removed them? What was he thinking about? Why wasn't he being attentive in that moment? As far as he had traveled on the path, he still had farther to go."
Mindfulness or paying attention to all that we do is another tool that can be used to lessen the suffering and loss that we bring into the lives of others by carelessness. We all know what accidents, problems, and catastrophes can ensue when we don't focus on what we are doing in the present moment.
As he's done in his previous books, Surya Das suggests specific practices in his discussion of the situations we may find ourselves in. Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be is filled with life-affirming stories and spiritual practices that are designed to lift the sagging spirits of those who have been wiped out by waves of suffering and loss. It makes the path of transformation both credible and alluring.