Discernment and Letting Go

May 27, 2013 | Field Notes

This past Friday I was fortunate to be able to gather with a fine group of hospital chaplains at the Vancouver School of Theology for a retreat day. The weather was wonderful and the location beside the ocean, with the coastal mountains so close by, added to the gift of the day. We spent part of the day discerning what it is we need to let go of in order to be free and able to serve. Very often we can feel weighed down by worries and responsibilities that we can feel less than alive. So, it is important to identify that which gets in the way of our spiritual freedom.

Our worries and responsibilities may lie in our outer world. There can be increasing pressures in our place of work. We might work in a place where we have very little control over decisions that impact directly on our work. There can be increase stress due to impossible job expectations or ambiguities regarding our roles and responsibilities. Or we may be meeting in our workplace a range of diversity that challenges our comfort zone or our ability to accommodate others. On top of these workplace issues we may have concerns about our health, our career track, our finances, our family and friends and so on.

Elsewhere in our outer world we may feel a sense of frustration or powerlessness over the political and economic forces that appear to control our lives. We may also feel this way when we scan the horizon and look at the ecological state of our world. Indeed, despite areas and pockets of real development in terms of political freedoms, economic justice, and environmental sustainability there is still much to cause us concern. We do live in a critical moment in human history.

In addition to these concerns from the outer world we may be facing changes and challenges from within our inner world. We may feel inadequate or fear failure. We may be carrying a sense of loss or living with grief. Or the wounds of our past may be haunting us. On top of these concerns we all have our own inner demons. Indeed, our inner life can be as full and as challenging as our outer life.

On this journey we call our life we are often confronted with stress, challenges and changes, sometimes from our outer world and sometimes from our inner world. Sometimes that which served us once no longer serves; that which controlled us once no longer controls us; that which we leaned on once no longer seems necessary anymore. Then we need to learn to let go and move on.

It seems to me that letting go is an essential part of the journey in the spiritual life, particularly as it pertains to an engaged spirituality that seeks to integrate the active life of social change with the inner life of an individual. As I grow I find myself being asked to let go of those things in the political and economic sphere where I see that change is not possible and to focus on working with people who are striving to live differently politically, economically, and ecologically. I find myself discerning where to put my energies, limited as they are, so that the ‘common good’ can be advanced in my small area of our global village. And I find myself discerning where my wounds still ache; where I am attached to the desire for power and control; where I am attached to things rather than people; where I am self-centered rather than ‘other-centered’. Discerning what to let go of in my outer world and my inner world is all quite humbling. Yet, it can also be quite freeing.

Letting go does not mean that I become resigned to injustice, corruption or environmental degradation. Quite the contrary. No, letting go can be a healthy discipline that helps me to focus all the more on the work to be done, work that requires a free heart. Yes, letting go is part of the journey to freedom of spirit, which is so important for political engagement today. I think it was their freedom of spirit that allowed both Jesus and the Buddha to challenge the limited worldviews of their times. Perhaps this is why both spirit masters remain such attractive models for engaged spirituality. Perhaps in knowing how to let go they were better able to know what, and who, to take up and engage.

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