How letting go actually happens
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Spending almost two decades in the study of Eastern philosophy instilled in me the value of letting go. Let go of attachment and desire, and you’ll be content, Buddhism teaches, because “you can only lose what you cling to.” This clinginess and the fear of loss and the actual loss will cause you suffering.
But “don’t let go of your values,” the Dalai Lama clarifies. Let’s not kid ourselves. There are people out there with some pretty wacky values. And many suffer because of conflicting values. So, the value thing can get complicated if one goes down that rabbit hole.
“Nirvana means to extinguish the burning fires of the Three Poisons: greed, anger, and ignorance. This can be accomplished by letting go of dissatisfaction.” — Shinjo Ito
“Breath by breath, let go of fear, expectation, anger, regret, cravings, frustration, fatigue. Let go of the need for approval. Let go of old judgments and opinions. Die to all that, and fly free. Soar in the freedom of desirelessness.” — Lama Surya Das
“Only when we relate with ourselves without moralizing, without harshness, without deception, can we let go of harmful patterns. Without maitri (metta), renunciation of old habits becomes abusive. This is an important point.” — Pema Chödrön
Aparigraha, the last Yama in Patanjali’s Eight Limb path to liberation and transcendence, is the practice of non-attachment/non-greed. It includes non-attachment, letting go of feelings, behaviors, patterns, people, and physical and non-physical things that are old, unnecessary, harmful, and an obstacle to liberation.
The more you delve into the literature, the longer the list of things to let go of.
It all makes sense, right? No one wants anger, greed, ignorance, harmful patterns, regrets, cravings, frustration, fatigue, deception, abusive habits, etc.
But everyone wants happiness. You must let go of wanting it, too, or it will never come. A pickle. Exactly!
I could argue that letting go of happiness WHILE you are happy will make you feel less happy. But I’ll be criticized that circumstantial happiness is not real happiness because the ultimate happiness is liberation. I get it. Who wants circumstantial happiness that doesn’t last beyond the circumstances?
Actually, I do. Every mother nursing her child does. Every person watching a sunset with a loved one does. Every backpacker marveling at nature off the beaten path does, too.
Most people would rather have a little bit of circumstantial happiness than none at all. Many, mostly happy people, know nothing of the doctrine of liberation.
Big Data says that people are the happiest when making love. I am not kidding. The Mappiness project in the UK reached this conclusion by tabulating millions of data points collected over a decade, asking people what they are doing when they get pinged and how happy they feel at that moment. The second activity that makes people the happiest is going to the theater, dancing, or being at a concert. Meditating/Religious Activities were #13 on the list, making people only 1/3 as happy as having sex. Resting and Relaxing was 29th on the list and only 1/15 as happy compared to having sex…
One thing we should all let go of is arguing with Big Data! So, I won’t.
I don’t think you can get a happy person to let go of happiness… A content person to let go of contentment. A fulfilled person to let go of fulfillment.
And if the goal is to reduce suffering, increasing happiness, contentment, and fulfillment does the job, doesn’t it? It does it, even without total transcendence and liberation as described in the spiritual traditions of the East.
Everyone agrees, though, that ‘letting go” is a good thing when the thing you could let go of causes you some degree of suffering. Suffering, they say, is bad.
But not all say that. Paul Bloom, a professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and the author of The Sweet Spot, makes the point that pain and suffering ARE essential to happiness. People choose to suffer in order to achieve happiness, he says… Think athletes. Think people delaying gratification, saving now to live better tomorrow. Think of people suffering through graduate degrees…
So, who are you going to believe? The gurus of the world’s spiritual traditions who never had to drive in LA traffic to get to work to feed their families, or Big Data and modern-day psychologists? You decide.
But what you really want to know is what is the actual process of letting go. How does it happen? What do you do to get there?
A friend of mine put the question this way, “What was the thought process you go through to get there?” He’s a thinker, so naturally…
That’s exactly what I wanted to know growing up and stumbling through life. I remember being in love and suffering when the object of my affection chose someone else. I remember agonizing over life path decisions, interpersonal relationships, and dreaming of a brighter future. You name it. We’ve all done it.
Life begins with lots of suffering. We learn, but not all learning serves us well. Unlearning is a form of letting go. We have life experiences, but not everything we experience makes us wiser or better.
Somewhere in our psyches, we have a discerning quality that helps us sort through ourselves, should we choose to pay attention to it. This process of sorting out is the beginning phase of letting go.
Sorting out takes time. But we can’t let go of anything we still consider important, necessary, and valuable. We sort things out by honestly self-reflecting and questioning ourselves, how we got where we are, who we are as people, and what we really want.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to know WHY you do what you do if you want to stop doing it. If you identify a behavior/belief/habit that’s not serving you or is at least questionable, IT IS useful to know where it comes from. But it IT IS NOT a prerequisite to changing it. You can replace one behavior with another a lot faster than you can untangle the mystery of why you do what you do.
You don’t need to know why you overeat. You already know that overeating causes weight gain and puts you at risk of health conditions. You just need to start controlling your portions and establish a new equilibrium.
Too many people spend too much time figuring out why they do what they do and too little time changing their behaviors.
Sometimes, people use the past as an excuse. They rationalize and justify their behavior by reciting past events. But, some things you may never be able to figure out. Such is the human psyche. It does not mean you can’t change how you do things and what you do.
If you jaywalk and find yourself staring at the front end of a semi-truck, it will not help you to ponder why you decided to jaywalk. Just get out of the way! ASAP. And stop jaywalking on a regular basis.
After sorting out, comes processing.
Processing is a meandering, convoluted, unpredictable, and even creative process. You start with feelings (guilt, shame, blame, confusion, self-criticism, regrets, fear, etc.), memories of specific events, and acknowledgment of patterns and habits you have, and you bum around in the ambiguity of it all, searching for meaning, lessons, and ways out of the discomfort.
Processing is an organic process. It just needs your attention. If you listen to the stirrings within and make yourself available for whatever arises, the insights will come naturally. If you repress it, you’ll be in more trouble than you know. So, just listen to your own discontent, wondering, confusion, and making sense.
Going to a therapist, or a life coach like me, could speed up your processing as we know how to ask questions and focus your attention.
Give it the time it needs. You didn’t become who you are overnight. You won’t undo your programming overnight, either. Time is your friend. It heals. And when it doesn’t fully heal, it softens the sharpness of your experiences. As time goes by, if you attend to your inside world, you will get to a place of making peace with things and with yourself.
Call that the acceptance phase. But don’t think of this as a linear process. You may have little insights and personal revelations that build on each other. You may even be working things out in your dreams. As your mind rests, it digests. So, pay attention to your dreams, too. Ponder them.
Acceptance sneaks in a little at the time, though. Don’t expect to “feel” acceptance the way a door opens and closes. More likely, you will feel yourself becoming more accepting, feeling less resistance and emotion. Acceptance happens the way an apple ripens slowly on the tree, almost invisibly on a day-to-day basis.
You don’t need full acceptance to change your behavior, either. You can do two things at once – processing leading to acceptance and working on doing what you need to do to minimize your struggles (changing your behavior.)
A changed behavior leads to better outcomes which can help you feel confident to do your processing. In this case, what goes first doesn’t always matter – the horse or the cart. As your acceptance grows and your behavior changes, you find yourself free of what you held on to for so long.
In a particular moment, you realize you have let go, but you got there many moments at the time. In this regard, I am in total disagreement with the gurus who teach that you just open your fist and free yourself of whatever you hold in there. Good luck with that.
It takes a moment to decide to let go. It takes a moment to remind yourself to let go. It takes a lot of moments to actually get there. How many moments, you ask?
That depends on how diligently you work on the problem, your consistency, and your willingness to surrender the benefits of not letting go.
Yep, that’s right. Most people don’t let go of things because they benefit in some way. I am not saying this is a great strategy. But if you let go of something, you may no longer feel and be seen as the victim in a situation benefiting from the sympathy and help of others. You may miss out on good bonding with your complaining-for-fun friends. You may have to accept responsibility for something, make amends, and generally put yourself out there in uncomfortable ways. You may have to change life paths, partners, friends, and locations.
As I always say, the only reason we keep doing what we always do is that we get some benefit from what we do, however unskillful, low-yield, and suboptimal this may be… It’s the path of least resistance.
We also fear change. We fear judgment. We fear confrontation. We fear hardship. Fear gets in the way of letting go. So, you must be willing to take a chance and accept the risk of change. Because once you let go of something, your world and orientation will never be the same. However big or small, the thing you let go of. Letting go is change in the making.
I hope this was helpful.
Best of luck to all of us in this department…
The war in Ukraine is still going on. I follow the developments, especially interested in the human aspect and experience.
This video shows an unthinkable life.
Count your blessings….
Thanks for reading.