Sharon Kim – in center in blue track pants and white top in a “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class photo – reflects in this essay on her experience with two forms of spiritual practices that taught her how to let go in the midst of a full-on high school career and how that dramatically changed her experience of the first semester of her senior year.
“All great spirituality is about letting go. I say this as an absolute statement.”
-Richard Rohr, September 1st, 2016
The biggest challenge that HKIS students face, like elite students everywhere, is the wall-to-wall, 24-7 feelings of stress that they report regularly in conversations. Rather than dismissing their concerns as “first world problems” or reminding them that their array of opportunities are so far greater than anything we experienced in our formative years, I think it’s better to listen with a compassionate ear to their concerns and experiment with solutions.
Sharon’s final essay in my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class represents just such an experiment in relieving stress. According to the Wisdom Tradition, our working philosophy in the class, the real reason that students are suffering is that they themselves are imbalanced. Rather than attending to their bodies, minds, and hearts as an integrated whole, educational systems – in imitation of the larger cultural milieu – value the mind’s academic achievement above all else. They then try to seek for what they really want – peace and security – through the mind’s relentless striving towards and worry about various markers of success: SAT scores, GPA, exam results, and college acceptances.
As an antidote to such stress in a World Religions class three years ago, I asked Sharon to try the Tibetan Buddhist practice of creating and then destroying a mandala that she had made to pattern into herself the counter-intuitive habit of letting go of achievements. The practice was dramatically successful, and she wrote an outstanding essay at the end of her freshmen year about the benefit that she gained from this practice. Now teaching her for a second time as a senior, she reflects back on her journey through high school and how to deal with stress through another way of letting go, the practice of meditation.
Sharon Hayon Kim
Service, Society & Sacred
10 December 2017
Holding Onto Letting Go
Freshman year I burnt a mandala that I worked on for ten hours. I clearly remember how it felt like, the first time to let go of the product that I had worked so hard on. It was a calming, welcoming empty feeling that I wished I could hold onto. Then I moved on. As school got busier with work and extracurricular activities in sophomore and junior years, I thought less about the mandala and lost touch with the vertical dimension [spiritual world]. The concept of letting go seemed unrealistic as the semesters went by, and by the beginning of senior year I was completely shattered inside. It was not until I was introduced to the surrender meditation that I began to search for the connection to my body, heart, and the vertical dimension.
In one word, the beginning of my senior year was chaos. I had never been under so much stress, having to juggle between my schoolwork, rugby, orchestra, and college applications all at once. Because I never had to deal with such stress and expectations before, my body and heart shut down within the first few weeks of school. I was not only unhealthy in terms of my physical health, lacking sleep and eating unhealthily, but also emotionally unstable, crying and denying the fact that I must face the reality of myself. At school not many people knew that I was struggling. I put on my enthusiastic, outgoing self up front, as if guarding myself would make the problem disappear. The stress kept on building, but I continued to believe that everything would eventually be lightened without me having to acknowledge that there was a problem within myself.
It was at this devastating time of the year that I was introduced to the potential of meditation. In SSS, we discussed the topic of balancing the body and the mind, and how the body reacts to stimuli in the environment. I did not believe in the theory of bodily intelligence at first, thinking that the mind is the only brain that can process one’s surroundings. However, my body immediately responded with a pressing weight on my chest when I heard the phrase “college application process” while engaged in a body scan meditation. I realized that meditation has an immediate and direct impact on my body, and hoped that practicing meditation at home would alleviate my level of stress. The first couple of times that I tried the surrender meditation, my mind wandered and I could not follow the instructions that guided me to “try to let go of the thoughts that come into the mind.” My mind was filled with the concerns regarding assignments and work, grasping onto one image after another. I felt pressed for time, anticipating that I could not spare ten minutes just for breathing and thinking about nothing. The more I tried, however, the more I found it easier to focus and just “watch the thoughts go by,” and felt calm and positive after meditating. Meditating regularly brought a huge change to my senior year. I became more confident in dealing with my emotions and letting go of anxious and negative thoughts. I learned to manage stress in a healthy, observing way.
Another meditation that I was introduced to as the course developed was a non-reactivity meditation. Impatience and temper have always been my weaknesses since I was young, and my family and friends have been noticing the worsening of these traits recently, due to stress and sleep deprivation. As an enneagram type seven, the enthusiast, my basic desire is to be satisfied and content, which I achieve by keeping myself busy and occupied. In the process of reaching for the most I can handle, I tend to face situations where I become impulsive and reckless. In addition to being a seven, I am a seven-wing-eight, characterized by aggressiveness and a big temper. Small and particular things easily irritate me, and I am usually quick to judge and express my annoyance in a shouting manner. In order to channel my energy into positivity, I was suggested to observe and let the impulses pass without judging. Putting this into practice was difficult, as the impulses sustained for extended periods of time when I tried to breathe and let go. Yet again, I found repeating the practice multiple times helpful. By the fifth meditation of the week, I was able to detach myself from the triggering events and let the noise or situation continue without reacting. The basis of surrender meditation created the smallest gap needed between the surroundings and myself, which allowed my steady breathing to cue relaxation and objectivity. Learning the non-reactivity meditation has not only helped me with deal with my temper but in a greater sense redevelop my experience of letting go, letting the stimuli pass by rather than influencing my mind and body.
I am confident that I have regained my sense of letting go through the meditations, because I felt the same emptiness few days ago as I was moving away from a relationship. I was holding onto the relationship for security, identity, and the memories that I have invested in and defined myself with. I was scared to let it go because I tied myself with the relationship, and losing that connection would mean losing my identity that I had thought would last. In the moment, however, I was surprisingly calm and logical, and the following morning I felt the emptiness in my chest, the hole that lets just enough air through. The emptiness comes from the realization that my identity and value should and will be connected to the vertical dimension, where I will be able to anchor myself on a more profound depth.
Breathing deeply now naturally calms me down without having to try hard to focus on clearing my mind. I feel in control of my emotions and mental state, and I no longer feel anxious when I am stressed. Through SSS, I realized the importance of the balance between body, mind, and heart, and the consequences that can follow the imbalance. I will bring my learning to college and through life, of letting go, eating healthy, and meditating. Personally, I look forward to stepping into a period of reconstruction in my life to further explore my spirituality. On a greater scale, I plan to share my learning with others through the field of sociology, where I aim to identify and solve social issues. I love interacting with different people and communities, and I hope to further research how to hold onto the experience of letting go in the busy, materialistic society of today.
All the great spiritual traditions teach that learning how to surrender is the key to moving from one’s small self to a Larger Self. Sharon learned this through the practices of burning a mandala in grade 9 and letting go of thoughts through meditation in grade 12. Both times the feeling of emptiness that resulted was strangely liberating and empowering, resulting in a more creative and expansive space in which she could live her life.
Sharon’s experience with surrender practices is a textbook example of C.G. Jung’s claim that a truly individuated human being needs to re-center their sense of self from the conscious mind to the unconscious, “shifting of the centre of personality from the ego to the self” (Jung & Krenyi, 100). In the terms I have used in this class, Sharon’s practices have loosened her identity from the horizontal life-in-time and allowed apprehension of the vertical timeless, invisible dimension. Having made some transitional movements towards a “gravitation from above,” Sharon now seems poised for a deeper exploration of her spiritual identity, and more powerful and balanced engagement in social issues.
So what can we as humanities teachers do for our students who, like Sharon, are suffering from high levels of stress? Sharon’s experience suggests that the ancient traditions’ emphasis on the importance of surrender as a means to fulfillment is not simply for some small segment of the population drawn to monastic life, but rather an essential 21st century survival skill in the midst of a hypercompetitive global culture. We need to teach that letting go is to mental well-being what expiration is to physical health, a non-negotiable part of the process. For the sake of our students, modern education needs to recover the yin-yang skill of achieving and then letting go of achievement, opening to something greater, which can only come from surrender.
Jung, C.G. and Kerenyi, C (1978). Essays on a science of mythology: The myth of the divine child and the mysteries of Eleusis. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
- The practice I suggested to Sharon is Centering Prayer, a Christian form of meditation. This blog provides both the method and rationale for the practice.
- Read “Burn Your Mandala: Letting Go in a Culture of Achievement” about Sharon’s realization when she was a freshman.
- “The Mandala: Why Monks Burn It” by Sister Joan Chittister.
- This brilliantly executed video by Jason Silva, “Existential Bummer,” inadvertently illustrates the dilemma of squeezing everything possible out of life. Silva strikingly states near the end of the video that one should “not let go,” which contrasts with the Wisdom Tradition’s central tenet that self-emptying is the sine qua non of the spiritual life.
- My teacher Cynthia Bourgeault illustrates the essence of the spiritual life in an interview for Conscious TV. She explains that we have to learn how to surrender, which means “non-clinging, doesn’t hang on, doesn’t insist, doesn’t assert, doesn’t grab, doesn’t brace, doesn’t defend” (35:00). Rather, the mind needs to be trained to let go. “It’s the life-long practice to recognize when you’ve gotten into one of these postures” – Cynthia models clenched fists – “tightened, urgent, angry, self-important, and in that moment” – she opens her fists and arms.
We Love by Letting Go
Monday, December 11, 2017
The key to kenosis is knowing that your life is not about you. Everything—each breath, heartbeat, morsel of food, seeming success—is gift. We are entirely dependent upon God’s loving us into being, and keeping us in being, interdependent with all other beings. Your life does not really belong to you, as countercultural and difficult as that is to understand in our individualistic, competitive, consumer culture. As the Trinity reveals, life and love are poured into us that we may pour into others. “It is in giving that we receive.” This is precisely what Jesus modeled for us through his life, death, and resurrection.
Cynthia Bourgeault, one of CAC’s core faculty members,” explores kenosis or letting go as “the Jesus trajectory”:
“Do not store up treasures on earth,” [Jesus] teaches; do not strive or be afraid—“for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). All will come of its own accord in good time and with abundant fullness, so long as one does not attempt to hoard or cling.
It is a path [Jesus] himself walked to the very end. In the garden of Gethsemane, with his betrayers and accusers massing at the gates, he struggled and anguished but remained true to his course. Do not hoard, do not cling—not even to life itself. Let it go, let it be—“Not my will but yours be done, [Father]. Into your hands, I commend my spirit” [Luke 22:42, 23:46].
Thus he came and thus he went, giving himself fully into life and death, losing himself, squandering himself. . . . It was not love stored up but love utterly poured out that opened the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Over and over, Jesus lays this path before us. There is nothing to be renounced or resisted. Everything can be embraced, but the catch is to cling to nothing. You let it go. You go through life like a knife goes through a done cake, picking up nothing, clinging to nothing, sticking to nothing. And . . . you can then throw yourself out, pour yourself out, being able to give it all back, even giving back life itself. That’s the kenotic path in a nutshell. Very, very simple. It only costs everything.