Lost and found. Those used to feel like such opposite categories – and I spent a lot of time in them. My lost keys. My yet-again lost keys. My lost phone. My lost love. My lost enthusiasms for this and that.
Now that I think about it, the category “lost” really depends a lot on being conjoined with its old pal, “my.” Once you let go of “my,” then “lost” itself becomes harder to locate. Without “me” as center, who’s to say what’s lost, and what’s found?
I remember this from reading Marie Kondo’s animist adventure in de-cluttering: if you take your sense of ownership out of an object, you can stop thinking about it as my precious, or that pain in my ass. Instead, you can feel coolly into its path through the world, and yours. Sure, somehow this thing has wound up with you – it was a present from your aunt, you bought it under the spell of some hormonal imbalance or nostalgia, it seemed like a great deal at the time – but that’s not relevant right now. What is relevant: do your paths still belong together? If your work is done, let it go to some cosmic transfer station or another. The thrift store. Re-gifting. The dump. The special at-the-dump-but-not-thrown-out shelf. Ebay. Whatever. Your paths separate.
Trevor Noah writes about this in a different way. When he was a kid, there was a dog he loved, named Foofie. Every day, he would leave for school in the morning, and when he came home, there was Foofie, waiting for him. This all worked out wonderfully. Then, one day when young Trevor was home on school holiday, to his astonishment, he saw Foofie jump over the backyard fence, and take off trotting contentedly through the streets of the neighborhood. He followed her, and soon she came to another house, where Foofie once again jumped a fence, and settled happily into her other life. There ensued a bitter canine custody battle between Trevor and another boy, both of whom were convinced that the dog was his. In the end, Trevor’s mother paid the other family some kind of bribe, and the other family let go of their claims. (Luckily, no one offered to chop Foofie in half.) From all of this, Trevor Noah says that he learned not to think of any future dogs, partners, or friends as “his.” He learned Foofie was her own dog, neither lost, nor found, but fundamentally free. I wonder if he really managed to do this. If so, then mazel tov. He is an example to us all.
Lost. Found. Somewhere else. Pema Chödron talks about the Buddhist metaphor of crossing over to the other shore in terms that are considerably less tidy than some orthodox views. She invokes the experience of being out alone on the night ocean, with no this shore, and no the other shore. She offers instead a way of practice that releases certainty in favor of openness to what is actually happening, however that is. No this shore, no the other shore, no lost, no found. Only this, now.
I am officially quite tired of careful Buddhists, of a way of life that depends always on restraint, refraining, repressing. Stay away from that door, that feeling, that impulse. If you open it, feel it, do it, you will be lost. I can say I am tired of all this now, because I have practiced it with much diligence, over years, and it has made me strong, but also limited. Now I want to know: what's behind the door? What happens if I feel the feeling? What happens if I let go of lost and found?
This past Sunday – Mother's Day – I had the experience of letting go of certain restraints around my mother, and finding something new behind the door. I called when I was tired and cranky – not a good start if restraint is the goal, but excellent if you want to start flipping through Bluebeard’s key ring, just to see what turns up. So that’s what happened. I turned the knob, and some old, desperate part of me emerged – the one who feels all is lost, and she is alone in the world. Her marriage is a mess, her work is hopeless, and no one can possibly understand the degree of sacrifice she has made in the world. OK, cool. I’ve definitely met her before, and I can feel the seduction of her part of this duet. Then, right on cue, the part of my mother who sees how I always behave in extreme ways, how I never manage to find balance, how I fail to understand the most obvious things about my life. Pathology, meet your pathologizer! You’ve found each other again, after many years apart.
And yet, something was definitely different. I could feel myself wanting to find a definitive misunderstanding between my mother and I, a definite source of blame and pain, and yet I couldn’t make it stick. I kept seeing this human being in front of me, through the Skype call, thousands of miles away. I kept feeling how no simple roll could hold either me, or her. I couldn’t make either one of us be lost, or found, and neither could she.
Now, that may not sound like much. You had a weird existential angst-match with your mom on Mother's Day? You succeeded in making both yourself and your husband cry, unlocking a door that could lead to the end of your marriage? Well, yes. All those things, and yet, all is not lost. In fact, I feel closer to my husband now, and my father, having heard from my mother what was up, sent me a kind email. He encouraged me to keep going, to keep filtering out the noise from the signal, so that what I carry in life can be what I choose to carry. I don't need to be overwhelmed. I don't need to do anything I don't want to do, out of fear of being lost.
There is a kind of carefulness required to do the letting-go practice I'm involved in now. I can't just open all the doors in Bluebeard's castle all at once. I can't declare everything found all at once. But, when one of the keys starts glowing in my pocket; or there’s tapping and shuffling coming from inside some dusty door; or I wonder about the view from that unknown room, I am free to go find out for myself. What else would I do, for goodness’ sake? Why sit around visualizing castles, when I live in one, and all the keys are in my pocket?
As with most rhetorical questions, I know the answer to this one. It's not all one, and not all the other. The visualizing, calming, and preparation give me strength and imagination when working in the world, and shape what I am willing to see in it. The work I do in the world gives me grounding that feeds the contemplative work. And as for castles – I have, somehow, landed a counseling internship that involves working in one – complete with crenellations and turrets. I enter rooms with clients who are themselves learning to navigate restraint and release; to seize what courage they can find, and reclaim parts of their being that they had thought lost.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.