A Talk by Ines Freedman (IMC, August 11, 2010)
(Transcribed and lightly edited by S.C.L. Eiler)

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There’s some tension in it, and inherently there’s an urge to do something; and so that’s why sometimes people use the expression, “I’ve got a charge on something,” or “I’ve got energy on something.” I don’t know how many of you have relatives who, almost invariably, they say something and it triggers something: that charge is there. The process of getting hooked is: something comes up in our experience which we either are drawn to or drawn away from, and we get a charge there towards or away from it, and it’s a feeling of, for most of us we feel like there’s this wanting to do something; and sometimes, for instance in mediation, we get hooked on our thoughts. We cling to an idea. Let’s say you’re sitting there watching the breath and a thought comes up about some project at work. You’ve devoted your time to watching the breath, but that thought about work says: ‘oh, that’s a really interesting thought’ or ‘an important thought,’ and very quickly you’re hooked on it; and thinking is doing something. So you just actively think about something.

The first step to working with clinging is to recognize when you’re doing it. When you’ve been mediating here, when you’ve gotten lost in your thoughts, are you aware that what you’ve done is clinging? Sometimes we think that the purpose of meditation might be to get calm, to have a calm mind, to be at ease; but, on a much deeper level, the purpose of meditation is to let go of clinging, because it’s clinging that causes the agitation. So actually seeing the clinging process itself, as we do it, is part of releasing ourselves from that clinging. If we’re not aware that we’re clinging we usually follow the urge. We have these hair trigger reactions where we act on something very quickly. So clinging is the primary habit of mind that meditation addresses.

The Buddha said that there are four kinds of clinging. The first kind of clinging is, clinging to sensual pleasures. How many of you in the meditation today have found any clinging to sensual pleasures? Okay, so most of us. It’s a little too hot, a little too cold; my back doesn’t feel quite comfortable enough. There are all these little things. There’s too much noise. So, all the different various things of sensual pleasures; they happen all day long.

And we can do it regarding material objects; that’s part of it too. We see a painting: ‘oh that’s beautiful;’ but instead of just appreciating the beauty, we want it: ‘where can I buy it?’ I remember I was actually at a sitting just like this one about fifteen years ago. We had just bought a new car, and we came out from the mediation very peaceful; and somebody had keyed our car, our brand new car. And I just remember, just that feeling of clinging, in that moment: ‘it shouldn’t have happened;’ and my husband said, “you know I think any time you buy a new car you should pre-key it, just get it over with.” It’s something we’re very familiar with.

The other kind of clinging that causes us a lot of suffering is clinging to views, to our ideas of how things should be; maybe what’s happening with the government, what’s happening with the environment, what’s happening at work. Take your pick. There’s always something that we think should be different than it is. A lot of us create a lot suffering in our own lives by clinging to being right, especially with the people who we’re intimately involved with. So many of the arguments that we get into are because we want to be right.

Status is something we cling to: ‘my job isn’t good enough;’ or just the idea that I’m important: ‘oh, I’m very important;’ or the idea that I’m very worthless. These are both clinging to status. It might be status in a negative way but it’s still clinging to status. So that’s all part of clinging to view, to the way we perceive the world. Self-righteousness: ‘this shouldn’t be this way.’

So these are the more common forms of clinging that we see very obviously: sensual pleasures, clinging to views, or another clinging to views, ‘this meditation should be better.’ How many of you have experienced that, ‘I’m not calm enough.’ That’s clinging to view, and often we have those thoughts and that kind of feeling of unhappiness, and we don’t even realize we’re clinging. So if you catch yourself thinking, ‘oh, my meditation should be calmer, I shouldn’t be lost again,’ notice that. How does that feel, that grasping, that sticking, that urge for things to be different?

The third form of clinging that the Buddha talked about is clinging to rules and ritual: ‘this is the right way to do this.’ A lot people get into a lot conflict over that. For instance, meditating every day, I think is a wonderful ritual, it’s a practice, it’s something that nourishes me tremendously, and over the years it’s been of great benefit. But sometimes people mistake the things that help them for the experience of the freedom it brings them, and they get attached: ‘oh my God my day is ruined, I didn’t meditate;’ or they get sick and they can’t meditate, and all of a sudden they feel lost because they mistake the actual mediation for the freedom of mind that meditation nurtures.

The fourth type of clinging that the Buddha talked about is clinging to the belief in personality, the belief in self, that we are somehow this solid entity that’s me. There are books about this thick written about what it is to be free of self, whether there’s a self, no-self; so, it’s not something I want to address in any very deep way, but the Buddha never said there is a self or there isn’t a self. He just said that when you look, you can’t pinpoint it, you can’t find a self that you can say, “this is me.” And one of the things that causes a lot of suffering in our lives, is the moment that we take any experience, and we think, ‘this is happening to me;’ we take it personally. That’s a kind of clinging that causes us a lot of suffering. For instance, if somebody is rude to us it’s their problem, but we can say, ‘ah, it’s me that they’re being rude to,’ and we’re clinging to that sense of: ‘this is me it’s happening to,’ and that creates the suffering.

The Buddha said, “whatever is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness and benefit. And what is not yours? Form is not yours . . .” (that’s the body and stuff) “Feeling is not yours . . .” (feelings come and go; they’re not who you are) “Perception is not yours . . . Fabrications” (or “mental formations”) are not yours . . .” (your thoughts) “Consciousness is not yours: let go of [all of] it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness and benefit” (Majhima Nikaya 22).

One other thing I want to say about clinging is that there’s a dormant or latent clinging. That’s the clinging that’s under the surface that’s ready to pop up. And one of the things that happens with meditation practice is that we become more aware of being able to see that dormant clinging. So, for instance, when you’re spouse says just the wrong thing that normally gets you really pissed off. As we meditate this latent clinging starts becoming seen, and so it can be moved through us instead of always ready under the surface to blow up.

The easiest way of working with clinging is to actually see it as it’s happening when we meditate. Every time we come back to the breath we practice letting go of clinging. Sometimes when we have very strong emotional reactions, for instance, I remember feeling very resentful over somebody who had caused me a lot of harm, and thinking, ‘okay I feel it, I’ve felt it really well, I want to let go of it; but it’s still there.’ So, what do you do with that, with that clinging that is so established, so strong? The instruction is to incline the mind to let go of it, just be patient with it; it doesn’t have to be released today. The habit of clinging is a lifetime habit, and just like if you want to stop biting your fingernails if that’s a lifetime habit, it somehow doesn’t happen instantly; it happens over a period of time. And it’s the same thing with such an insidious habit as the habit of clinging. It’s enough to incline the mind in that direction.

I’d like to invite you to consider spending a day looking at your mind throughout your day, and just ask yourself the question, ‘am I clinging?’ If you’re driving the car and you’re trying to get somewhere, is your mind going, ‘are we there yet?’ Or, if you’re surfing on the internet, is there this feeling of tightness, of clinging: ‘what’s next, what’s next?’ Is that showing up? Or, if you’re channel surfing or listening to the radio, is there an anxiety, a clinging of: ‘what’s next, what’s next?’ So, just ask yourself the question, ‘is there clinging right at this moment? Can I let go of it? Is there clinging? Can I let go of it?’

I want to finish with one of my favorite reminders from Joseph Goldstein. He said, “nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as me or mine.”

Thank you.