Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be: Lessons on Change, Loss, and Spiritual Transformation
By Lama Surya Das
In much of India, tattered, homeless beggars abound. Many live under bridges or manage to find temporary shelter from the harsh elements under the eaves of bus and train stations and near roadside water spigots and latrines. Some years back, when I was a young man, still in my twenties, I used to travel through India on rickety buses on which you could go hundreds of miles for about a quarter. One day I got off an Indian train in Mathura Station, near the Taj Mahal. It was dusk, and I saw a group of children begging. One of them was a young boy with elephantiasis. He couldn't have been much more than ten, and he was draped in a burlap-sack shawl. The boy hobbled up to me, asking for baksheesh, alms. He was wobbling; one of his feet was the size of a football. He had large eyes, and he looked as though he was starving. I was so stunned and moved by his appearance that I didn't know what to do. I gave him a handful of rupees, brutally aware of the insignificance of my gift. The boy was all excited as he hurried back to the other children. His expectations from life were so minimal that he could be made happy by a few miserable paper notes.
The boy was living on the street, so he had probably lost his parents. His physical appearance attested to the fact that he had lost his health. His eyes told me that he had already lost hope. His plight was so severe, and there was little or nothing that I could do. He was so young, and yet he had lost so much. Even so, he could still be overjoyed, however briefly. My heart broke at the sight.
I am generally a hardened case when it comes to feelings. Not unlike many men of my generation and probably others too, I have learned to protect and insulate that tender spot at the heart of each of us, which is so vulnerable to grief, loss, and sorrow. But when I saw that little boy, I started to cry at the enormity of his situation, and that of all the other deprived children. As an American who had never been deprived, it gave me a sense of perspective. It was this child's gift to me, and unlike the few rupees I handed him, it was a significant gift.
Here in the West, we are rarely prepared for this scale of loss. We take a certain level of creature comfort very much for granted. When we watch news clips of impoverished children in other countries, we are sad, but it seems far away. We watch television commercials, sitcoms, and glamorous films, and we anticipate beautiful, exhilarating, sun-drenched, healthy lives filled with joy and love. After all, we are the heroes and heroines, the "good guys" of our own lives. Don't the good guys always end up getting "the good stuff"? Good guys aren't supposed to lose. Unlike the child in India, we are raised to have high expectations. For some of us, the most consistently troublesome thing about loss is the destruction of expectations.
Many of us are uncomfortable around loss; when things go wrong in our lives, we are sometimes surprised to discover that we feel and act almost embarrassed, as though we had something to be ashamed of. We have been told too many times that "everybody loves a winner" and "nobody loves a loser." And yet, of course, we know realistically that even "winners" suffer great loss.
The tendency to hide loss and bury it under the carpet, so to speak, is understandable. Not that long ago I was introduced to a man at a party. He had just recently lost a good job, and people were asking about it. I could tell that he was trying to put his loss in a good light. "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. He reassured everyone that he was in good shape financially and that he had "many prospects" lined up. He adamantly denied that he felt scared and worried.
Another friend of mine recently lost an upper-management job, and as part of the severance "package" from her previous employer she was given several weeks of counseling with an outplacement firm that specializes in helping people find new jobs. In her first week there, she went to a group counseling session with about fifteen other men and women who were discussing what had happened to them. She said she was shocked and surprised at the level of anger and hurt that she felt. It was comforting and reassuring to be with a group of people with whom she could openly share her feelings of having been wrongfully and heartlessly fired or downsized.
She told me that at the beginning of the session everyone there was putting a good face on the loss of employment. Two hours later, the group was being much more honest with themselves and others. They all began to admit to feelings of anger, hurt, and fear. One man began to cry and thanked the group for helping him open up. He said that he was so taken aback when he was fired, after ten years of employment, that he was in shock and couldn't acknowledge the magnitude of his loss. He told the group that he had been a workaholic who had given this job all of his time and creative energy. Now he felt like a fool. He said that acknowledging the depth of his loss and talking about it to a group of supportive peers was a turning point in his healing process.
When bad things happen, we want to stay honest with ourselves about our feelings. We don't want to lose our capacity to feel; we don't want to become so hardened and frozen that we can't experience or remember the negative things that happened to us. Repressing difficult experiences and feelings can make us ill. Acknowledging our pain is a necessary part of our healing.
Examining our lives and losses for deeper meaning is an important part of being on a spiritual path. Yet loss and suffering can also bring faith. Suffering can be redemptive; it helps burn away superficiality and complacency. Buddha said that suffering is the proximate cause for the arising of faith and compassion.
Do you ever think about the losses in your life? I know I do. Here are some of the people, ideas, beliefs, and things I've lost in the course of my lifetime. I lost my beloved grandmas and grandpas, favorite aunt and uncles; my six teen-year-old friend, Jay, who died on a motorcycle; my friend Alison, who was killed in 1971 at Kent State when she was nineteen. I've lost too many precious enlightened gurus and teachers to whom I was close. The list seems endless. Just this year, as I was working on this book, I lost my beautiful white sheep dog, Chandi, who became ill and died.
I've lost energy, time, memory, patience, and the mental acuity of youth. I've lost innocence, opportunities, and naiveté, along with virginity a long time ago. I've lost friends, family, neighbors, and neighborhoods I loved. I've lost the athletic ability of a teenage jock. I've lost apartments, homes, jobs, and girlfriends.
I've lost connections to trains, planes, buses, and, yes, people. I've lost old picture albums, favorite books, watches, rings, bathing suits, good clothes, keys, phone numbers, and a three-speed bike that was stolen.
I've lost track of my purpose more than a few times. Fortunately, I lost the adolescent belief that I knew more than anybody else did. I also lost the belief that the sixties' countercultural perspective could and would change the world. I lost my fear of commitment. Somewhere along the line I also lost my fear of getting old. And I lost my absolutist belief that there are idealized solutions for all problems and that perfect choices can be found and made.