Our youngest child graduated from high-school this past week and one of the commencement speakers was a Chumash elder who, as you might expect, did not offer the usual platitudes. Emotions ran high for me during that ceremony and, to be fair, I don’t remember much about the speeches. But something this Native American elder said has stayed with me and it went something like this: “When you find yourself struggling look inside and see what you can let go of.” There are similarities between what his wisdom tradition teaches and the mindfulness tradition that I teach so it’s not surprising that his teaching about ‘letting-go’ resonates with me, but it may be surprising that it also feels somewhat incomplete.
One of my favorite classical stories on letting go as a way to ease suffering is about a monkey that gets caught in a bamboo trap: A hunter set a monkey trap by putting a banana inside of a bamboo cage. The bars on the cage were set apart at a distance just wide enough for a monkey to reach inside with a flat hand, but not wide enough to pull that hand out again holding the banana. This trap was remarkably effective because the monkey wouldn’t drop the banana once he had gotten hold of it so he remained trapped even though freedom was as simple as releasing his grip. Is the moral of this story to drop the banana?