Holding On

by | Mar 28, 2019 | 4 comments

In Buddhism, holding on is considered the root of human suffering. When we hold on – whether we hold on to something and push it away, pull it toward, or even hold on in order to ignore – tension is generated. We feel stressed, anxious, edgy. We suffer.

In a teaching called ‘The Three Lords of Materialism’ (in which materialism is equated with holding on), Chogyam Trungpa tells us of three main life arenas in which we cling in the ways discussed above. When under the influence of the Lord of Form, we hold on to objects and / or appearances that allow our lives to seem a certain way. The Lord of Speech sees us holding onto concepts and ideologies. And finally, the Lord of Mind dominates when we hold onto particular states of mind / being.

When practicing meditation, we do not usually identify what, exactly, we are holding on to. We simply let our awareness rest upon the experience of holding when it’s encountered in the body – encountered as tension – and see what happens. The instruction, “Notice any tension and let it dissolve,” encourages precisely this.

At the same time, however, it can be helpful to be familiar with some of the main ways we hold in our lives, some of the main things we hold on to. Knowing I have a tendency to grasp after a sense of being hurt when I feel unheard or unacknowledged (the Lord of Mind, perhaps!?!), for instance, can prove extremely valuable in my day to day.

Imagine I’m in a work meeting. Somebody quickly moves on from a point I’ve tried to make and hurt arises. Knowing this is a common reaction for me – perhaps a too common reaction, a habitual reaction – I can pause when this feeling appears. Turning attention inward, I can locate the hurt in the body and explore. Does it have a sense of fluidity and dynamism, suggesting a fresh and alive response to life? Or is it’s character more rigid and brittle, suggesting I am holding on?

If the latter, I can let my attention rest on the knots taking shape in my belly. Under the warmth of awareness, these will loosen a little. As more and more space percolates through the tangle of my response, I’ll be able to catches glimpses of the world outside this knee-jerk holding. I will be free to see what is actually going on, in other words. And in so doing, free to discern what – if anything – I am going to do next.

– Neil        


  1. A deep exhalation can be everything…

    • Certainly a powerful response to our tendency to hold on, Sean. Follow that out-breath to it’s very conclusion and all we will find is letting go, open space, aahhh…

  2. Neil,
    I am wondering if there is a sense or way of “holding on” that is perhaps helpful and skillful? One example might be holding on to a practice instruction in the midst of a storm of discursive thinking and emotionality drawing me away from practice – staying with the tension. Or if perhaps in becoming familiar with how and to what we hold on, we find that we hold on to what feels most important and imperative in our lives? I guess the questions becomes who or what is holding on, the ego or the body – our authentic human expression? Could holding on to the latter be part and parcel with letting go of the former?
    Thank you for this reflection,

    • A couple very good points here, Dan:

      (1) Yes, holding on to practice instruction can be incredibly helpful during times of turmoil – as long as we remember that we are, in fact, holding on. So once we have found stability in that storm, we let go a little more and a little more and…

      (2) As for holding on to what is important and / or imperative in our lives, the painful truth here is as soon as we hold on to this, it becomes something else! Our holding – no matter what form it takes – inevitably alters that which is being held.

      (3) Which raises for me the question of whether a true imperative can ever be held? Another worthy reflection, perhaps?!?


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