The art of letting go

When I was a child in England we used to play a particular game in the winter. Without gloves we would crush snow and ice into our hands and lob it at a set target. When we became too numbed with cold to continue we rushed into the classroom, clutched the large hot radiator pipes and yelled ‘Last one to let go is a coward’. We tried desperately to conceal our inability to maintain a lengthy grip. Eventually of course we did let go, just before the pain of looming blisters overrode the pleasure of tingling heat.

As we get older we learn that letting go is often desirable. And it is far from cowardly. In fact, letting go can demand vast resources of self-awareness and courage. Letting go is often about abdicating ownership. It is an affirmation that certain things contain their own life, independent of our desires and anxieties. We learn too that letting go means acknowledging and honouring the past in order that we can move on.

The Tibetan monks that I photographed in Melbourne in 1996 were engaged in a symbolic ritual that is all about letting go. They came from the Namgyal monastery in the north Indian town of Dharamsala where the Tibetans in exile have established a new homeland. It’s the same monastery to which the Dalai Lama belongs. Their Melbourne stopover was part of a global tour to spread messages of peace and reconciliation. They do this by constructing a magnificent Kalchakra Mandala out of coloured sand. Over several weeks they dedicate many hours each day to putting the sand into small fluted steel tubes. They tap those tubes with a metal rod to release the sand, grain by coloured grain, into the exact spot. The melodic tapping of metal on metal offers meditative accompaniment as the patterns form. It can take four monks six hours a day for 20 days to complete the pattern. When their construction is finished, they consecrate it and then, with great ceremony, scoop it up and toss it into the ocean.

‘It’s all about letting go and returning to the earth that which comes from the earth,’ one monk told me. ‘This is a celebration of impermanence. It’s not a cause for regret but an invitation to live in the present, to embrace change and find security.’

These monks know about impermanence and security. I have been to Dharamsala where they live in exile. The Tibetans there are struggling to reclaim that which they have lost. So does this mean they are unable to let go? It’s not as simple as that. Letting go for these monks does not mean negating their traditions and beliefs. But it does mean letting go of the ego and the need for individual ownership.

There is a delicious contradiction in the fact that the monks asked me to take photographs of the mandala; their celebration of impermanence. The photograph is a fixed, permanent image of a moment. The monks readily agree that they enjoy having the photographic reminder of their work. They are, after all, human. I observed a powerful expression of this humanity at the ceremony after they tossed the sand into the ocean. It was an encounter between an Aboriginal artist from Western Australia and one of the monks. Her greeting was to touch the monk’s chin gently. The monk clasped her hand and returned her look. In so doing he had let go of the tenet that monks must not touch women.

The exchanged gaze between these artists represents a moment that is a triumph of humanity. It was significant that this encounter happened at Port Melbourne Pier, a place of disembarkation for so many people forced by tyrannical regimes to let go of the place to which they once belonged and to embrace new worlds.

Belonging drives a lot of human activity. While the Tibetan monks see themselves as belonging to a monastery and to a strong cultural tradition, the essence of their belonging lies beyond a physical place and history. It lies within the very life force to which we all belong and is mirrored in their mandala.
We need these saffron-robed artists to remind us that letting go is far from cowardly. 

Peter Davis is a Melbourne writer, photographer and a lecturer at Deakin University.



submit a comment


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up